Friday, January 30, 2009

Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act Clears Committee

HB 561, also known as the Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act, cleared the Public Health Committee unanimously this morning. The bill is sponsored by one of classmates, Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton). I had the privilege of handling it in committee and look forward to handling it on the House floor sometime next week.

The Mississippi Human Embryo Adoption Act provides much-needed legal clarity when it comes to the rights of human embryos, genetic parents and adopted parents.

In a basic explanation, when a couple of undergoes the In vitro fertilization process, several embryos may be left over. The parents have the opportunity to "freeze" these embryos in order to store them, in case they choose to try and have children again in the future.

HB 561 would provide legal protection for those parents who want to give these embryos up for adoption by other couples who cannot have their own children. It brings donated embryos under the adoption laws and protection as children who have already been born. It also specifies the exact moment when the parental rights of genetic parents are relinquished and the rights of adopted parents begin.

SnowFlakes, an adoption agency in California, has really championed the cause of human embryo adoption. To get more information, click here to go to their Web site.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Senate Passes Out Cigarette Tax Increase

Today, the Senate passed out a 31-cent cigarette tax increase by a vote of 42-7. This would bring Mississippi's total cigarette tax to 49 cents. I was able to catch some of the Senate debate during lunch. One amendment hotly debated was to increase the cigarette tax to $1 per pack, like the House version allowed for. That amendment failed by 4 votes.

The Senate bill included a provision to cap car tag fees with some of the cigarette tax revenue. I think this provision was added by a few senators who can now technically say they voted for a "tax swap" instead of an outright "tax increase."

The bill will now go to conference committee between the House and Senate. The House's version calls for an 82-cent increase, and the Senate's version calls for a 31-cent increase. The likely total tax will land in the middle, somewhere between 50-70 cents total. Because both sides seem to want this increase to go into effect March 1 (so we can earn some revenue this fiscal year, which ends June 30), conference committee for the bill will probably get underway early next week.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House Approves $68M Deficit Appropriation

On Wednesday, the House leadership rolled out and passed HB 1383 by a vote of 82-37, which would seek to make a deficit appropriation for K-12 education to offset Governor Barbour's cuts that were announced last week.

A "deficit appropriation" is one that seeks to provide bridge money to the end of the current fiscal year with the assumption that enough revenue will come into the state's coffers by year's end to cover the appropriation.

HB 1383's premise was to appropriate $68M, which would cover most of the Governor's budget cut. The number of $68M came from the House's revenue estimate of $68M for cigarette tax revenue for the rest of this fiscal year, assuming- a) the Senate passed the House's 82-cent cigarette tax increase, and b) if it all gets done by March 1.

However, the only problem with the legislation is that neither of the above scenarios will likely happen. The Senate is not going to 'ok' an 82-cent cigarette tax increase. A more probable outcome would be that the Senate would pass out something like a 24-cent increase, with the bill going to conference and the final cigarette tax ending up around 60-70 cents. So while I completely agree that we should divert as much money as possible to assist cash-strapped school districts in the wake of budget cuts, I do not think it wise to appropriate revenue that has not yet been generated.

My analogy for the situation is this. Suppose I'm interviewing for a job that pays a great sum of money. I've interviewed once and feel pretty good about my prospects. And even though I have two more interviews left to go, I go off and buy a mansion using the "money" that I think I will make if I get that job.

HB 1383, while a noble gesture, probably gives many school districts a great deal of false hope- because the money will not be there in the end. Two smarter options would have been to a) appropriate a smaller, lump-sum amount to K-12, such as $30M, which new cigarette tax revenues could cover; or b) make an appropriation that will "make whole" those few districts who will have negative balances at the end of the fiscal year.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Armed Forces Museum Reception

Last night, I drove back to Hattiesburg to attend the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum's reception and ceremony to honor those individuals who have contributed stories and artifacts to the museum. If you've never visited the Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby, I greatly recommend it. Besides having stirring stories of heroism from Mississippians involved in defending America, there is an impressive collection of war memorabilia dating back to the War of 1812. The exhibits are also top-notch, with many audio and visual effects you might expect only in larger markets.

I also met Vera Anderson McDonald, who during World War II, won the National Women's Welding Champion the first two years it was held. She served as the inspiration for the "Rosie the Riveter" posters. Actually, it was the second time I had met her- the first was going door-to-door in her neighborhood during the 2007 campaign. Her actual trophy from the 40s is on display at the museum.

It was also an honor to meet Mr. George Robert Hall, who was a Vietnam POW for 7 1/2 years. He was captured in 1965 and released in 1973. We actually had a few things in common. His father, Stanton A. Hall, held the same House seat that I now hold. His father went on to serve as a state senator and judge. An even great coincidence was that Mr. Hall was born in the same house on South 21st Avenue that Kate and I now reside.

If you haven't visited the Armed Forces Museum, again, I strongly recommend it. Take Highway 49 South to Camp Shelby, entering at the north gate.

Cigarette Tax Passes House

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed HB 364, which allowed for a cigarette tax increase of 82 cents. If the House plan makes it through the Senate, the state's total cigarette tax would be $1 per pack. HB 364 passed 81-39.

Two amendments failed in the process. The first amendment, presented by Representative Bobby Howell (R-Kilmichael), would have trimmed the increase to 42 cents. It failed 56-65. Representative Greg Snowden (R-Meridian) brings up a good point in his blog (click here to read Snowden's entry on HB 364). Snowden notes that the amendment was, in the end, defeated by six Republicans, who ended up not voting for the final bill. Their principled opposition to any tax increase is admirable; however, it's ironic that by voting against the amendment, they ended up raising the cigarette tax increase by 40 cents.

However, the final cigarette tax increase will likely not be anywhere near $1 per pack. The Senate is likely to pass out a 24-cent increase to a total of 42 cents. The bill will then go to conference, with the final total cigarette tax landing around 50-68 cents.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Governor Gives State of the State

Last night, Governor Barbour gave his annual State of the State Address. While any executive's (mayor, governor or President) "State of the..." address tends to include a laundry list of accomplishments and new initiatives, last night's address was a sobering reminder of the challenges we face. The Governor touched on the latest estimate on FY09's budget shortfall ($175-$315 million), challenged us to make the Rainy Day fund last for four years and gave the expected, but unfortunate news that K-12 education would be cut for this fiscal year.

However, it also turns out that many school districts had been putting aside their own "rainy day fund" in the event of such a budget downturn. The combined amount for Mississippi's school districts is over $500 million, significantly higher than the amount in the entire state's own Rainy Day Fund. How this will shake out for Mississippi's school districts remains to be seen. From what I've heard, the budget cut for K-12 will be under $100 million, which is less than the 5% cut we might have expected.

The Governor closed his speech by calling for several reforms to make state government more effective and efficient. He called for a study to look into privatizing Mississippi driver's license stations, as well as the ABC. He called for a new charter school law and for the House to consider a health insurance exchange for small businesses. These are reforms that are overdue in getting a fair shake from the legislature.

In the end, while getting the bad news, the Governor continued to look forward in setting a vision that could still move the state forward. Perhaps one of Governor Barbour's greatest leadership traits is the way he brings people together in times of uncertainty and calamity. I've noticed that even the staunchest of Democrats respect the man for his fiscal discipline and prudent approach during this economic downturn. To his own credit, Governor Barbour himself has also given a little on hiking the cigarette tax.

If both sides can actually talk and cooperate this session (at least on some things), we'll be able to navigate around the obstacles and still make progress. However, I admit I've had more coffee than normal this morning and am feeling unusually optimistic. We'll just see how it plays out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cigarette Tax First Major House Issue

Yesterday, the House Ways & Means Committee passed out H.B. 364 by a vote of 13-11. This bill would increase the tax on cigarettes by 82 cents per pack for a total of $1.00 per pack. The House was expected to vote on the bill this morning, but it was put off until next week, probably because there were questions on whether enough votes were there to accomplish the required 3/5 margin.

The House will likely debate and vote on the issue early next week. Several amendments are likely to be offered. The only item of contention for House members is the exact amount of the increase; some are advocating for an increase of 82 cents per pack like H.B. 364 proposes. Others, especially those living in counties bordering neighboring states, are pressing for a more moderate increase of 42-50 cents per pack.

However, it's quite clear a cigarette tax will happen this year. With massive budget shortfalls, the cigarette tax is seen as an attempt to plug funding holes for such items as education and Medicaid. An additional possibility is that a cigarette tax increase could have an early "effective date," which would mean the increase would go into law well before the usual July 1 date of new laws.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The First Day, Part II

Today, we gaveled in at noon for the first day of the 2009 legislative session. It was a significant event (in our world at least) because the first day occurred at the newly renovated Old Capitol Building. The Old Capitol was the seat of state government from 1839 to 1903. Each house of the legislature held its session in its respective chamber from 1839.

As I sat there with Rep. Tad Campbell (R-Meridian), we noticed stark differences in the mood of House members. Some were in quite the festive spirit, taking pictures and cajoling with members they hadn't seen in several months. There's nothing particularly wrong with this scene- while starting the first session, we were also celebrating the reopening of one of the more historic and beautiful buildings in the whole state. It's something we should recognize.

However, there was another mood in the old House chambers, of which Tad and I were part of, that was definitely of a more somber mindset- realizing that we're facing some daunting challenges during the 2009 session.

The reality is quite clear that our state budget has come in well below projections. The latest from the Governor is that we may come in $170-$230 million below projection. But for the people and businesses we represent, it's worse. Indeed, hard decisions will have to be made during this session.

But I believe we'll pull through if we keep a few things in mind. First of all, we have to remember our priorities and remember the things we campaigned on. Secondly, we have to keep an even keel and make realistic, common sense decisions. Finally, we have to realize that playing this "my way or the highway" game won't cut it this time. We don't have the time or money to get into foxholes on issues and refuse to talk to the other side. We don't need three or four special sessions. We have 90 days to work out the budget, cigarette tax, education and Medicaid. Let's get to work and get it done- on time.