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Capitol Dispatch: Weed, bigotry, tax cuts, and water | Jake McGraw

This week, the legislature has faced deadlines to pass general bills and constitutional amendments that originated in the other house. The action on revenue and appropriations bills, which move on a separate track, will resume next week.

GOOD:

  • All voter purge bills have died.
  • Teachers are on track to get a $1,000 pay raise and student loan repayment assistance.
  • TANF cash benefits to low-income families will be raised for the first time in two decades.
  • The bill to politicize the MDAH board has died: it is notable that instead of letting the bill die quietly in committee, the House voted 103-19 to kill the Senate?s takeover in an unusually public show of force.
  • The ban on over-the-counter pseudoephedrine sales has been lifted (a big win for sinus sufferers like me?)
  • Criminal justice reforms including expanded parole and probation eligibility are likely to pass, although it remains to be seen whether the Governor will sign them. He vetoed similar legislation last session.

BAD:

  • The medical marijuana bill exists in a liminal state between life and death: it was officially killed by the House but revived through a procedural maneuver in the Senate. The debate has become so heated that legislators looked like they might come to blows on the floor ? yet I’m not what this bill does and why it?s needed, and I don’t think I’m alone. As written, it would only go into effect if the state Supreme Court overturns the Initiative 65 ballot measure that was approved last November. The bill?s supporters say that it will preserve the legality of medical marijuana if the Court rules against Initiative 65. Yet advocates for medical marijuana don?t trust the legislature?s intentions and have been staunchly opposed.

Ugly:

  • The transphobic ?Fairness Act? has been signed into law. Every session there seems to be a bill that grandstands on a hot-button conservative social issue: the prospect of trans women playing on women?s high school sports teams is this year?s model. Like most of these bills, their legal effect is far outweighed by the cultural statement they make. And the statement behind this bill is brutally clear: the state of Mississippi considers trans people to be predatory and unworthy of equal rights.
  • Gov. Reeves is trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the fight against COVID-19: citing low new case rates and hospitalizations, he dropped the near-statewide mask mandate and restaurant/venue capacity restrictions. Despite the fact that Mississippi lags in vaccine distribution, especially among Black communities, the Governor has made a tour of national conservative media to spread the message that his government is getting out of the public health business.

TBD:

  • The tax reform that eliminates the income tax, cuts the grocery taxes, and raises sales taxes on all other goods awaits action in the Senate. The House passed it on a bipartisan vote, but it has powerful detractors on both its right and left flanks. The Governor has said he will not sign the sales tax increase, while the Lieutenant Governor has indicated that he is opposed to the income tax phase-out. The Speaker has tried to rally support by publicizing a rosy ? but in my view, quite flawed ? economic analysis from two UM economic professors and an endorsement from Arthur Laffer, a prominent conservative economist who has never met a tax cut he didn?t love. The Lieutenant Governor has called upon the nonpartisan State Economist to weigh in, which is a refreshing departure from the recent tradition of bypassing the state?s official fiscal analysts in favor of claims made by interested outside parties. An earlier report from the State Economist?s office gave a grim prognosis of the Governor?s income tax elimination (in line with what happened when Kansas tried this several years ago). It gave a more favorable score to a tax shift proposal similar to what passed the House, but they had not yet seen the actual bill to perform a detailed analysis. Presumably they are preparing that now at the Lieutenant Governor?s request.
  • Jackson?s water crisis has finally gotten attention in the Capitol, although many state officials still seem to blame city leaders for ?mismanagement? rather than decades of white flight and property tax exemption enjoyed by its largest landowner, state government. The Mayor has met with the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker, and the triumvirate seems to have agreed to provide financial support to the city ? although we do not know how much or what they?ll demand in exchange. The Mayor made headlines when he divulged that the Lieutenant Governor had framed emergency state funding as a quid pro quo to get the city to drop its lawsuit blocking the state?s takeover of the Jackson airport (the Lieutenant Governor denies this and has since been photographed handing out bottled water). It’s likely that Jackson gets some or all of the $47 million it requested from the state in the bond bill, the annual borrowing package for infrastructure and state buildings that gets hammered out in late March. The legislature will also consider Jackson?s request to levy an additional cent in sales taxes for the water system, which would generate a stream of $14 million a year that could be leveraged to borrow a larger lump sum. It would come on top of the 1 cent tax for roads, and it would have to be approved by fed-up Jackson voters after it wins approval from the legislature. All parties are scouring the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan to see whether the crisis can be ameliorated through federal generosity. The ARP will allocate $44 million directly to Jackson, and the state will be able to distribute its own pot of approximately $1.5 billion. Part of that money could be used to repair infrastructure, while some could also go to people who need help paying water bills, providing assistance to thirsty residents and the city alike.
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