Taxes — yes — But what other issues are on the Mississippi Legislature agenda?
Published 5:14 am Tuesday, January 3, 2023
Mississippi legislators return to the Capitol on Tuesday, and their three-month session could be dominated by debates over taxes.
This is the final year of a four-year term. Most members of the Republican-controlled House and Senate are expected to seek reelection, but the Republican speaker of the House, Philip Gunn, announced months ago that this will be his final year in office.
During the 2022 session, legislators passed and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a plan to reduce the state income tax over four years — the state’s largest tax cut ever. That reduction starts this year.
Gunn says he wants legislators this year to finish the job of eliminating the income tax. He points to a budget estimate that shows Mississippi with a surplus of about $1 million.
“It’s time to give some of that back to the citizens,” Gunn told reporters in December. “The money belongs to the people. Every bit of money we have is the people’s money. And with inflation costs … which demand more money, it’s time to put some of it back.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in a separate pre-session interview that he has a different plan for taxes. He wants to give rebates to people who have paid state income tax, at a cost of about $270 million. This would not permanently erase the income tax.
“If you paid a dollar, you get a dollar back,” Hosemann said. “If you paid $200, you get $200 back, until you run out of money. So if you pay $400, you get $400 back. And at some point in time, which I think is around $500 or so, that would be the maximum left after we started from bottom, giving everybody the dollars back.”
Other issues for the 2023 session:
POSTPARTUM MEDICAID COVERAGE
Advocates for low-income families want legislators to extend Medicaid coverage to a full year after a woman has given birth, saying the coverage could help mothers in a state that has a high rate of maternal mortality.
Experts have said expansion from two months to 12 months would cost about $7 million a year. The current and former state health officer and other physicians have spoken in favor of allowing postpartum Medicaid coverage for a year.
The Mississippi Senate has previously voted to extend postpartum coverage, and Hosemann said he still supports the extension.
Gunn killed a postpartum extension proposal in 2002. He said he will support extended coverage only if Division of Medicaid leaders recommend it — and they have not done it.
“I don’t see the advantage of doing the postpartum thing,” Gunn said. “They have not called me and told me that I’m wrong on that.”
Several hospitals face severe financial problems, including Greenwood Leflore Hospital, which closed its labor and delivery unit months ago because it could not pay competitive wages.
Legislators have not offered a clear plan for how to stabilize the situation. Mississippi is one of 11 states that have not expanded Medicaid to the working poor — people whose jobs do not provide private health insurance coverage. Republican leaders in Mississippi say they remain opposed to expansion, although it could bring an estimated $1 billion a year to the state.
Hosemann said legislators could consider easing state restrictions to allow more school districts to pursue year-round academic schedules, with shorter summer breaks but more frequent breaks during the year.
Legislators also could consider putting more money into preschool programs through early learning collaboratives, he said.
During the 2022 session, legislators passed and the governor signed Mississippi’s largest teacher pay raise in a generation. There’s been little discussion about trying to give teachers another raise this year. The law that took effect July 1 gave teachers an average increase of about $5,100 — a jump of more than 10% in pay. Teachers assistants are receiving a $2,000 increase over two years.
“The governor-elect of Arkansas has given me grief about the fact that she’s going to have to start raising her teachers to keep them from coming over here,” Hosemann said.
Gunn and Hosemann say leaders of the House and Senate have been talking about reviving the initiative process that allows people to petition to put issues on the statewide ballot. They need to resolve a disagreement about how many signatures would be required.
In May 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling killed the previous initiative process by finding that it was outdated.
When the process was added to the Mississippi Constitution in the 1990s, it required petitioners trying to get any initiative on the ballot to gather one-fifth of signatures from each congressional district. Mississippi had five congressional districts at the time that was written. But the state dropped to four districts after the 2000 census, and language dealing with the initiative process was never updated.