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Charlie Mitchell: Lawmaking in Jackson just isn't what it used to be


Charlie Mitchell



OXFORD -- This may sound cynical. It isn't meant to be. Just trying to be honest. 


Once Santa gets the reindeer unhitched and back in the barn and the New Year parties are over, Mississippi lawmakers will head to that great big building in Jackson for a 90-day session of good old-fashioned lawmaking. 


But times have changed. There's really not much for them to do. 


Call it creeping federalism. 


Call it stampeding federalism. 


But there's less and less "turf" for lawmakers in Mississippi and all other states to manage. 




Nope. That's handled by the feds. 




States can set tougher standards than the Environmental Protection Agency, but not lesser standards. 




Well, not as much as many seem to think. This year, federal money is supporting K-12 efforts in Mississippi with about $800 million, about 20 percent of the total cost. And although Common Core is a "voluntary" curriculum adopted in the state, it follows on the heels of the federal No Child Left Behind standards. The official posture is that states may create their own plans, but absent federal approval of those plans, no federal dollars will be forthcoming. As fervent as the "more money" plea is for K-12, imagine the impact of losing two dimes out of every dollar. 


Voting districts? Voting rights? Drinking ages? DUI laws? Speed limits? Corrections? The Legislature can dither in those areas -- as long as nothing is done to which federal officials object. 


Road construction? Mostly federal dollars; must meet federal standards. 


OK, well let's try this one: Health care. 


No, no, a thousand times no. 


Medicare has always been a completely federal program with completely federal rules. Even though private insurance companies still exist and are still subject to state regulation (kind of), the ultimate arbiter of all things medical is now some provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that may or may not have even been discovered. 


So, what can they do? What can 52 senators and 144 representatives do to occupy themselves after the gavel is sounded at noon on Jan. 7? 


Well, of course, the big item is crafting a state budget to allocate how revenue will be spent for the 12 months starting July 1, 2014. 


But lawmakers, in their own words, are quick to tell us every year how quickly that apple is pared to the core. 


Gov. Phil Bryant's executive budget recommendation starts with $5.3 billion in expected state income. Subtract $2.3 billion for K-12, $883 million for Medicaid (plus $152 million for other Department of Human Service expenses), $931 million for community colleges and universities, $400 million to pay on the state's bonded debt and $366 million for prisons and what's left has to pay for everything else from the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol to state-aid road projects. 


Although the state's economy is expected to grow at a fairly healthy rate in the coming year (as opposed to shrinking), it seems some state operation already has dibs on 99.5 cents of every dollar before it even arrives in the treasury. 


Budgeting is always tough, but next year, like every year, the fight will be over scraps, not major initiatives. 


Given there's a lot they can't do, what is within their power? 


The major thing is strategy. 


What states can do is position themselves for an added level of level of vitality. 


Yes, this Legislature -- collectively one of the most conservative in state history -- will try to pass some laws to drug-test people on the dole and limit abortions. (Tried to shut down the state's only clinic last year and learned that this, too, is a federal matter.) 


Overall, however, there's one tool remaining in their kit. It is measure every piece of legislation by a simple yardstick: Will this increase the likelihood of good jobs or better jobs coming to Mississippi? That's how to help the working class and the want-to-work class. 


Back in 1936 when Gov. Hugh White tried to sell state leaders on the notion of the state passing initiatives to aid in economic development, he was seen as a renegade. Back then, lawmakers had other things to do -- and what they did had greater impact. 


But it's 2014 (or soon will be) and, whether anyone likes it or not, the model of governance in America has shifted. The feds do the detail stuff. 


Today, state lawmaking is more about finesse, about optimum positioning of states to flourish in the national economy. 


The more lawmakers concentrate on the new reality, the better.



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