PERRY/Reviewing the session
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 1:00 PM
The Stennis Institute & Capitol Press Corps luncheon Monday featured state Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson) and state Rep. Andy Gipson (R-Braxton) and their review and recap of the just completed legislative session. They talked criminal justice reform, Medicaid expansion, teacher pay raises and other issues.
Both supported the criminal justice reform provisions passed this year. Blount called it one of the most significant long-term accomplishments of the legislature and Gipson said in addition to saving money, it provides surety to victims and judges that criminals will serve a portion of their sentences.
Gipson served on the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force created by the legislature which made nineteen recommendations to the legislature. Those passed include true minimum sentences for violent (must complete at least 50 percent of their sentence) and nonviolent (must complete 25 percent) criminals regardless of their behavior while incarcerated. The reform leans on drug courts as alternative sentencing mechanisms to reduce costs.
They're not alone in their assessment. Mississippi Chief Justice Bill Waller, Jr. called it the most important reform in 100 years, and U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett echoed that sentiment. While a circuit court judge, Starrett pioneered drug courts in Mississippi and has been advocate for their use for many years.
Blount said he thinks, despite being from different parties, he and Gipson are in accord on the teacher pay raise. Both voted against the Senate version which they said would have required eligible teachers to be from "A" or "B" rated schools to receive the full increase.
"I don't believe we would have had a teacher pay raise without the leadership of Speaker Philip Gunn," Gipson said. Gipson noted funding of K-12 public schools increased 3.7 percent to $2.4 billion, and university funding increased 4.6 percent. Other areas with increased funding include mental health and corrections and the infrastructure funding will get the first $32 million available from any revenue revisions this year.
In addition to infrastructure needs like roads and bridges, Blount also said community colleges needed assistance; but that he wants the legislature to focus on human infrastructure, particularly increasing education funding as the economy improves.
Regarding Medicaid expansion, Blount said, ""The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and it's in the state's fiscal interest and the interest of providers" to expand Medicaid. Blount continued, "It's ultimately going to be a dollars and cents decision rather than a political one."
Gipson said they agree to disagree on this point. He said Obamacare has been a miserable failure and "we're going to look back and realize Mississippi was wise not to expand [Medicaid]. Our goal shouldn't be to put people on government funded Medicaid. I don't trust the federal government to fund it."
Blount noted the cultural retail attraction tax credit would end at the close of the fiscal year, and it could not end fast enough in his opinion. He said currently three shopping malls were using this tax credit with a possible fourth coming soon. He said six years of the state's cost of Medicaid expansion could have been paid for by the amount given to the construction of the shopping malls. Blount said Medicaid expansion is "an issue that will be back next year, and the year after that, and until we address that."
Blount said voter-ID is the law of the land, but he wants to seek increased access to the ballot box through online voter registration, same day registration, early voting at courthouses, and a change in returning suffrage rights to convicted felons.
He noted not all felonies are disenfranchising and there should be some kind of mechanism to automatically return voting rights once a convicted felon has completed his sentence.
Currently, the legislature has to pass (with the governor's assent) the restoration of voting rights to any individual who is unable to vote due to a felony conviction. Three suffrage bills were passed during this session to restore the rights of Randall Lamar Bolton (grand larceny in 1980) of Panola County, Donald Jones (grand larceny in 1978) of Harrison County and Michael Todd Manual (embezzlement in 1999) of Rankin County. Over the past ten years, 87 citizens have had their suffrage returned by the legislature with 35 of those coming in 2004. Some years (2009, 2012) have had zero suffrage bills approved. Last year, one suffrage bill was passed and approved.
Gipson said he isn't necessarily opposed to voter registration reforms, but would have to take a look at the practical ramifications. "Mississippi and America works best when people are involved and voting," he said.
The two legislators also disagreed on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Gipson, a bi-vocational Baptist minister said it "protects all people of faith" while Blount said Mississippi, with our history, should be careful and sensitive about legislation some consider discriminatory.
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at email@example.com or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.