Friday, February 27, 2009

Stimulus Update

As I posted on this week's newsletter, here's a broad breakdown of how Mississippi's portion of the stimulus package will be distributed.

$87 million to support critical government services, aside from those funds dedicated to other needs (education, infrastructure, etc.)

Mississippi will receive education dollars at the state and local levels.

Title I Grants - $132M
Education Technology State Grants - $8.5M
IDEA Part B Grants to States - $117M
IDEA Part B Preschool Grants - $4.5M
IDEA Part C Grants for Infants and Families - $4.3M
Federal Pell Grants - $392M
Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants - $7.2M
Independent Living State Grants - $242K
Services for Blind Elderly - $331K
Federal Work Study - $2.3M
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund for Education - $392M - this portion may be used to stabilize MAEP for this fiscal year, as well as the 2010 and 2011 fiscal year.

Mississippi will receive a 6.2% increase in its reimbursement rate, which will save Mississippi's Medicaid program up to $474M.
Mississippi will also receive an estimated savings of up to $108M for other health-related agencies, such as UMC, the State Health Department, the Department of Mental Health and Rehab Services.

Workforce, Unemployment and Job Training
Recipients will receive an additional $25 per week in unemployment benefits.
Recipients will receive benefits for an additional 33 weeks.
Recipients will receive a tax savings on their unemployment compensation for up the $2,400.
The state will receive an additional $3.2 million to bolster employment service training.
The state will receive a share of $575 million for trade adjustment assistance dollars to benefit struggling domestic industries.
The state will receive more money for job training, Job Corps and youth programs.

Highways and Bridges
Mississippi will receive a total of $350M.

$240M of this can be used by MDOT for highways and bridges.
$10.5M will be used for transportation enhancement projects, such as welcome centers, interstate rest stops, etc.
$100M will be designated for local projects in cities and counties.
$34M will be used for transit projects.

$35.5M will go to the Mississippi Development Authority's Energy Division. It's uncertain on where the money will be used, but it will probably provide for some sort of financial incentives to adopt alternative energy.
$51.7M will go to MDA for "weatherization." We're still learning about what this will be used for.

Water, Sewer and Environmental
$35M for sewer systems through the state's revolving loan fund.
$17M for water systems through the state's revolving loan fund.
$200M for repairing leaking underground storage tanks.
$1.7M for diesel emissions reductions. This will be used to put catalytic converters on school buses.

Law Enforcement
Mississippi will receive $18.5M for additional resources to prevent and fight crime.

Housing and Economic Development
HOME Investment Partnership - $18M to fill financing gaps in low-income housing tax credit projects.
Homelessness Prevention Fund - $13M for three years for short-term rental assistance.
Community Development Block Grants - $8.3M more for state and local governments.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Meal Plan Bill Passes House 119-2

HB 856 passed the House yesterday 119-2. This bill, which I authored, would assist the students at all Mississippi universities and senior colleges with their meal plans. It would make their "flex plans", also known as declining balance accounts, exempt from sales tax.

Prior to October 1, these flex plans were exempt. The Mississippi State Tax Commission issued a ruling last year that universities and colleges would have to start taxing these portions of student meal plans.

When the bill was brought before the Ways & Means Committee, Chairman Percy Watson (D-Hattiesburg) allowed me to present the legislation, even though I was not a member of the committee. The vote was an 8-8 tie; Chairman Watson then broke the tie by voting for it. The bill went to the full House floor yesterday and passed 119-2.

There are several folks students should definitely thank if this bill becomes law. Chairman Watson would be the first; Representative Angela Cockerham (D-Amite County) would be the second- she presented the bill on the House floor yesterday. Representatives Mark Formby (R-Picayune) and John Moore (R-Brandon) were also very pivotal. On the voice in committee yesterday, it appeared the "nays" were in the majority. Both of them called for a roll call vote, which indicated the tie- which then gave Chairman Watson the opportunity to break that tie.

The bill will now head to the Senate Finance Committee.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Deadline For Floor Action Passes

Last night just before 9 p.m., the deadline passed for floor action on bills.

Because of the long voter ID debate on Wednesday, most everyone's bill moved to Thursday's calendar, which had many people, including myself, sweating on whether our legislation would have a chance to come up for a vote.

However, this proved to be an unexpected blessing. Because everyone had been then there so long, many members did not pick apart the minutiae of every bill. They listened for the high points, asked questions if there were any real concerns and let it go to the board for a vote. Because of that, four bills that I handled on the floor were spared being overly interrogated.

One trick I learned last year was to read all the bills on the calendar several days ahead of time. When you do that, you can mark how you want to vote on your calendar, leaving notes for yourself on questions you want to ask or putting question marks by bills you're not sure about. This also helps you when you are having to prep on bills you're presenting while debate on other bills is going on.

I was glad to see two bills finally clear the docket and move to the Senate. One was the Human Embryo Adoption Act (HB 561) that passed after only a few questions from the floor. The bill's author, Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton) and I had poured through court cases in other states, run the bill by a few members for "grilling in advance" (thanks Angela) and had done hours of research to anticipate any possible question we might not be able to answer.

The other bill was the Athletic Trainer Bill (HB 640) that I was assigned in committee. It was one of those bills where several groups were initially opposed to, and the object was to try and take a bill and mold it to where everyone was happy. While not everyone completely got what they wanted, it was enough to get the bill through the House.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Deadline Week

When I try to describe the experience of being in the Mississippi House of Representatives to someone, I often try to describe things like "Deadline Week." All House bills have to be acted upon by tomorrow night at 8 p.m., or they will be essentially "dead."

Often, people are so passionate and emotional about certain issues that it causes extended debate, multiple amendment offerings and seldom-used procedural moves to get one's way. This was seen today in two counts.

First, the voter ID debate carried on for five hours. Five hours. And because this issue has been debated for over ten years, I doubt anyone changed their mind from the moment they walked in the House chamber at 10 a.m. until we finally took a vote on final passage at 3 p.m. However- everyone has the right to speak on a bill, and most did.

Secondly, when we returned from lunch, one representative was upset at how a bill from his/her committee fell on the calendar, and a seldom-used tactic of having the clerk read the bill from start to finish was employed to prove a point. In the year that I've been here, I've never seen a request for the clerk to read a whole bill. That's the responsibility of the individual representatives. However- when someone wants to delay a proceeding, or simply prove a point, the maneuver definitely gets everyone's attention. Especially when the bill is 35 pages long, like one we handled tonight. However, after reading five bills, the representative must have gotten his/her point across, because they finally stopped making the request.

So, since we adjourned at 7:30 tonight, for 9 1/2 hours of working (minus the 1 1/2 hour we had for lunch from 3-4:30 p.m.), we handled a grand total of 10 bills- which leaves 60 for us to work on before tomorrow's 8 p.m. deadline. Obviously, we won't get to all of these, and many of them will die.

Voter ID Passes the House

It's officially snowing.

Voter ID finally passed the House today. After a five-hour debate (literally, we were in the House chamber from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), the final vote passed 77-44.

What began as a problematic bill including same-day voter registration, weak voter ID and multi-site early voting came out as a mandatory voter ID, voter registration deadlines moved up to 3 days before the election and an age exemption for those born before August 1, 1944.

Here's a recap of how it went down:

Called up the bill

Motion to previous question – would have cut off debate so amendments could not be offered; failed 58-62

Amendment 1 – passed

Motion to previous question – would have cut off debate so amendments could not be offered; failed 55-65

Amendment 2 – struck all House committee language and inserted comprehensive voter ID language

Amendment 1 to Amendment 2 – would have reinstated motor voter, but made the
bill a 3/5 vote; failed; 55-65
Amendment 2 to Amendment 2 – would take out photo ID; failed 50-70
Amendment 3 to Amendment 2 – would provide age exemption for those born
before August 1, 1944; passed 63-57

Amendment 2 passed 62-58

Amendment 3 – would have prohibited candidates from using campaign money for personal use; ruled not germaine

Amendment 4 – would restore suffrage rights in circuit court to nonviolent offenders; passed 72-48

Amendment 5 – would let people register three days before an election 65-55

Final Passage – passed 77-44

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Soup Saturdays at Cafe Boheme

If you're looking for a lunch spot, especially on Saturday, I highly recommend Cafe Boheme in midtown Hattiesburg. Every Saturday, Paul McCall and the crew fix up some of the best soup you've ever tasted. Kate and I tried it today, and it was nothing short of amazing.

Each Saturday showcases a completely different soup. It's served Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m. at Cafe Boheme. Cafe Boheme is located at 1605 Hardy Street between Moore's Bike Shop and Simmons Furniture. Support your local business, and check it out one weekend.

Friday, February 6, 2009

HC 33 Would Amend Constitution To Protect Property Rights

This morning, HC 33 passed the House. HC 33 would amend the Mississippi Constitution to restrict the use of eminent domain. The amendment would prohibit the use of of eminent domain from private economic development projects.

This initiative arose out of the United States Supreme Court Kelo decision dealing with taking private property for someone else's private development in New London, Connecticut. Since this decision was made, many states have been moving to protect the private property rights of their citizens.

Owning property is one of the most fundamental rights established at the beginning of this nation. Protecting a person's right to keep what he or she owns is a worthy pursuit.

HB 680 Would Assist Smaller Non-Profits

HB 680 was passed by the House yesterday. It would raise the reporting threshold for reporting contributions to the Secretary of State. The current threshold is $4,000- this bill would raise it to $25,000. It would also revise the date of when annual reports had to be filed.

This would bring Mississippi's laws governing non-profit, 501 C-3-designated organizations in line with federal laws.

For many of Mississippi's smaller non-profits, this w help with operating costs. Smaller "mom and pop" non-profits will avoid added expense of attorney and accountant services associated with filing these reports.