April 7, 2014 10:12:29 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers used their 2014 session to enact substantial changes to the state's criminal justice system, give pay raises to teachers and a few thousand lower-paid state employees and put more money into training new state troopers.
They passed bills to limit union activities and to make it harder for the state to try to collect a higher share of taxes from multistate corporations.
In this third year of a four-year term, the Republican-controlled House and Senate also passed bills to appeal to social conservatives -- banning abortion at the midpoint of a full-term pregnancy and doing drug testing of some welfare recipients.
They enacted a new law that adds "In God We Trust" to the state seal and says government can't put a substantial burden on religious practices, a measure that supporters say will protect the unfettered practice of religion and opponents say could let people cite religious beliefs in discriminating against gays and lesbians.
Budget writers say they met their goal of setting a $6 billion spending plan that puts millions more dollars into financial reserves and dramatically reduces the use of "one-time money," such as lawsuit settlements, to pay for state expenses that carry from one budget year to the next, such as salaries.
"I am very proud of what we have accomplished this year," Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement after the three-month session ended late Wednesday. "From adopting policies that require violent criminals to serve at least 50 percent of their sentences to reaching our goal of training more troopers to protect lives and investigate crimes, I believe we have taken strong steps to protect Mississippi communities."
Mississippi Democratic Party chairman Rickey Cole said Republicans, including Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn, are making the state lose billions of federal dollars by opting not to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of working-poor residents. Expansion is an option under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed in 2010, but Bryant, Gunn and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves say Mississippi can't afford to spend more on Medicaid, even with the federal government paying most of the cost.
"Mississippi's third legislative session under Phil Bryant and Philip Gunn is over and, as expected, was more of the same nonsense," Cole wrote in a post-session fundraising letter for the Democratic Party. "They remain focused on side issues that appeal to their base but do nothing to address unemployment, public education, or our quality of life. We remain first in poverty and last in education, but Phil's number one priority is to appease the fringe."
Bryant signed the criminal justice measure, House Bill 585 (http://bit.ly/1eOGbng ), on March 31 and it becomes law July 1. It says anyone convicted of a violent offense will be required to serve at least 50 percent of a sentence, and anyone convicted of a nonviolent offense will have to serve at least 25 percent. It gives judges more flexibility to impose alternate sentences, such as ordering treatment for drug users. Circuit courts will be authorized to establish treatment programs for military veterans who might have traumatic brain injuries, depression or drug and alcohol problems. For the first time, Mississippi law will specify which crimes are classified as violent, for sentencing purposes.
The governor signed the religious-practices bill, Senate Bill 2681 (http://bit.ly/1hheTXI ), in a private ceremony Thursday, joined by a few lawmakers, lobbyists for the state's Southern Baptist convention and the president of the Washington-based Family Research Council. A day before the bill signing, Bryant said he was not surprised by the criticism the measure received.
"I think these are the types of things that get attention anywhere in the United States when you start talking about religion in the public square -- it brings a lot of debate, in one way or the other," Bryant said. "I think that's healthy for those of us who have to make decisions about religious freedoms."
About the time Bryant was signing the bill, more than 75 gay rights supporters were protesting it on the Capitol steps. Nathan Tipton, 48, who lives in the north Mississippi city of Hernando, said he believes it could aggravate hostility that he already experiences as a gay man by giving people license to discriminate.
"The GOP keeps on talking about small government," Tipton said. "Well, this is direct government interference in my life."
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