Issues Mississippi lawmakers didn’t solve will bubble back up

Published 7:15 am Sunday, April 7, 2019

It’s hard to hear the sound of the dog that didn’t bark.

In the same way, it’s hard to detect the impact of issues that lawmakers didn’t deal with. But as in any session, there were important issues on which the Mississippi Legislature didn’t make laws, or even really consider.

This, for example, could have been the year for lawmakers to create a state public defender system. Right now, each county decides how to pay lawyers for people accused of crimes who can’t afford their own attorneys.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

A task force highlighted serious flaws in that system, including lawyers dependent on the favor of judges for their jobs, and lawyers who make too little money, creating incentives for them to neglect their clients. Public defender issues also loom large in a series of lawsuits brought against cities and counties for how they jail poor people, set unaffordable bails, and squeeze them for fine payments.

The task force estimated it would have cost about $4 million to set up a statewide system that would parallel the district attorney’s office in each of the state’s 22 judicial circuits. But a bill to do so languished, even though there was money available for such a move this year. The problems remain an invitation to a statewide lawsuit, which is one way to force lawmakers’ hands.

Some issues vanished this year because they were politically unpopular and could have threatened lawmakers’ chances of re-election. For example, many Republican leaders still dislike the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the funding formula that determines how money is apportioned among school districts and is supposed to tell lawmakers how much money to put in.

In 2018, Republican leaders made a serious run at replacing the formula, but lost when Democrats and some Republicans resisted, under heavy pressure from traditional public school supporters.

The adequate education program is still deeply underfunded, though, with lawmakers shorting it about $250 million for the upcoming budget year. The rewrite debate also highlighted imbalances in how some parts of K-12 education are funded, including special education and career-technical education. An emboldened Republican majority could take another run at a rewrite if 2019 elections are favorable to them. However, state Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican and key supporter of change, is retiring. His absence could matter.

Some other issues vanished in this election year because Republicans didn’t want to tinker with the machinery they rely on for re-election. Democratic state Sen. David Blount of Jackson made a convincing case that it’s extraordinarily difficult for people who live outside Mississippi to vote by absentee ballot in runoff elections held three weeks after earlier votes.

The easy fix would be to allow such voters to request a second absentee ballot with their first one, as overseas soldiers may. But nothing happened. Also stalled were initiatives to let people register to vote online, or to vote early without an excuse.

It was clear there was strong interest this year in legalizing the growing of hemp, and also in allowing marijuana use for medical reasons. But Gov. Phil Bryant and some others were strongly opposed. That issue could force itself into view next year thanks to a well-funded ballot campaign to put a medical marijuana referendum on the ballot. Lawmakers could have to choose to offer alternate referendum language, or let the sponsors’ language go forward unchallenged.

One legislative cliché is “We’ll be here next year.” There will be some different members under the Capitol dome in January 2020. But there will be someone there in those seats, and some of these issues will be back.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011.