January 3, 2014 10:26:50 AM
Representatives and senators in the Golden Triangle will meet with their colleagues in Jackson Tuesday for the 2014 regular legislative session to address budgetary, education and public safety challenges among others over the next three months.
The Dispatch spoke with four lawmakers: Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus; Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus; Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville and Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus. Each had concerns ranging from the implementation of Common Core standards in K-12 education to revised incarceration laws.
An extra challenge Brown faces this session is his health. In October, The Dispatch reported Brown was receiving chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was located on his left lung. Brown said he has completed all but one of his treatments and is recovering well, adding that the illness will not keep him from fulfilling his duties as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Brown said he hopes to continue developing legislation that will draw economic and industrial development to the state, as well as workforce training.
"My priority is job creation: Workforce training for our community college and our institutions of higher learning to create and have a workable and operating workforce for new industry coming in or existing industry to expand," Brown said.
Brown said he also expected the Senate to closely examine Common Core standards and the expansion of Medicaid. Mississippi's schools will fully implement the standards for the 2014-15 school year. Brown said it is important not to allow a "Washington takeover" of Mississippi schools despite the program being labeled a state-led initiative.
"If we compare one school district in Mississippi to another school district in Mississippi, neither one of them may be that great. If you compare bad to bad or mediocre to mediocre, that's all you're going to get, so you need to compare yourselves on a national basis to what other states are doing," Brown said. "But, I don't want Washington D.C. running our schools in the state of Mississippi. The curriculums, we need to derive those ourselves...We do need to have a comparison to what other states are doing because we're in a very competitive market as far as economic development and job creation."
Brown added he plans to listen to colleagues across the table on their desire to expand Medicaid but is unsure that enough Republicans will be convinced there will be enough funding in the budget.
"The Democrats would love to see an expansion of it and the governor (Phil Bryant) and some of us don't know if we can afford it, so I'm sure we'll have a healthy debate over whether we expand it or don't," he said.
Like Brown, Chism was not optimistic that the optional expansion would receive enough support.
"I think there will be a push again to expand Medicaid rules under Obamacare. I don't think it will be successful," Chism said. "Almost one in three people in Mississippi are on Medicaid and it is the fastest growing agency that we've got and it's going to gobble up all the money if you're not careful."
Chism said he backed Bryant's push for a focus on public safety this session, noting he expected there to be some tightened restrictions on incarceration but some adjustments on drug-related sentences.
"I think we're going to deal with some revamping of sentencing laws to make it be truer to what a judge sends you," he said. "Sometimes (convicted criminals are) getting out before we're expecting them to...part of (potential proposed legislation) is that you're going to have to spend at least 25 percent of your sentence. I also think there's going to be an effort to move some instead of incarceration to house arrest for drug related crimes."
Ellis said decreasing incarceration starts with better schools and opportunities for youth. He wants to see a program developed that would track more progress of school children during the third to eighth grade years to prevent dropouts.
"If you want to avoid incarceration you've got to increase opportunities for education," Ellis said.
As for Common Core, Ellis said he wants consistent standards across the board for all of the state's school districts but feels the standards need to be evaluated.
"Anything we put out there without the proper funding to do it, I have some concerns about," he said. "How can you get the most out of it if one district is doing it and another is not? How can you reap the real benefits of it? We have different districts doing things different ways. I like consistency and a consistent approach in what we do."
Ellis said he'll also work with lawmakers on any economic development incentive program for municipalities statewide.
"I think we need to focus on making sure that the local entities have an opportunity to provide the resources necessary to have an enhanced environment ... to attract new industry," Ellis said. "Supervisors need the abilities to implement various types of packages in order to shore up the assistance they need to create better tourism and better economic development. Whether they use a 1 percent sales tax or restaurant and hotel tax to utilize as an enhancement to get the job done."
Smith, chairman of the House's Ways and Means Committee, said one of his main goals is to secure funding for facility improvements at each of Mississippi's eight public universities -- particularly MUW, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State Universities -- and to properly fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program without risking a state budget shortfall. He said he also hopes to get funds Columbus could use to complete the renovation of City Hall. The city recently missed an opportunity to receive a $500,000 grant due to a mathematical error in a grant application. Smith said several municipalities made similar mistakes in their application for funding from the Mississippi Development of Archives and History and that the city will still likely receive somewhere near that amount in March so the process can continue.
"There was a little money left and we're going to be able to get more this month to continue that work until the legislature goes ahead and gets the new legislation passed to get the ... $500,000. They'll have a small grant end of this month. Then we'll have legislation in March to get them money so there won't be any work stoppage. The clerical error will be taken care of."
Smith said a common misunderstanding is that legislators plan to make tweaks to charter school legislation that was passed last year. There must be time allowed to see how it works after the state's first charter schools begin operating, he said.
"There's not a single charter school (in the state)," he said. "You can only have 10 a year unless we change the law. A lot of people say we're going to go back there this year and fine-tune it and we probably will someday, but you don't normally fine-tune something until you see how it works."
Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, and Sen. Angela Turner, D-West Point, did not return calls seeking comment.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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