The three-month legislative session begins Jan. 3, and it will be the second year of a four-year term.
The first year is a time of adjustment. Freshmen are learning how bills are filed, debated in committees and considered by the full House or Senate. Veteran lawmakers are getting to know their new colleagues. Some newly promoted committee chairmen are becoming familiar with their new roles.
In the second and third years, legislators are accustomed to their jobs but are still somewhat insulated from the pressure of seeking re-election. These are generally the most productive years of a term.
The fourth year is shaped by elections. A few legislators will opt to retire, some will seek higher office and most generally run for four more years in the House and Senate. Candidates’ qualifying deadline is March 1, which is two-thirds of the way into the legislative session. Some lawmakers will keep a low profile in hopes of not attracting an opponent, while others will go out of their way to seek attention. It’s an atmosphere that’s often not conducive to getting things done.
So, in a four-year term, count on two productive years — including the one coming up.
Education funding is already front and center of prep work for 2017. Republican leaders of the House and Senate hired a consulting firm to recommend changes to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula was put into law by a Democratic-controlled Legislature in 1997 but has been fully funded only two years, regardless of which party has been in control.
Short funding has been a constant source of political friction, and there’s no guarantee that writing a new formula will satisfy critics who say Mississippi invests too little money in its public schools.
The New Jersey-based consulting firm, EdBuild, is supposed to submit a proposal before the session begins. Debate will begin early in the legislative session because Jan. 31 is the deadline for committees to consider the first round of bills that would make general changes to state law.
Transportation will be another big issue for 2017, though there has been less attention so far on what proposals could be considered.
Anyone who has driven the bumpy, pothole-infested section of U.S. 49 through Rankin County knows that some Mississippi’s highways are in dire need of work. Bridges are also in bad shape: “What Lies Beneath,” a six-minute video produced by the MDOT, shows rotted timber, rusted metal and other structural problems. The video is posted to the website of Mississippi Economic Council, the state Chamber of Commerce.
The MEC plan called “Excelerate” shows that nearly 37,800 miles of state highways and local roads and more than 3,900 state and local bridges were in need of repair as of June 2016. The estimated cost: $6.6 billion.
During the 2016 session, MEC advocated spending $375 million a year, for 10 years, on state and local roads and bridges to improve safety and create jobs. But legislative leaders balked at increasing the gasoline tax, and the funding issue remains unresolved.
“There is a direct return on investment,” the Excelerate report says. “For an investment of about 37 cents a day, Mississippians over time, as the program is completed, will receive a return of about $1.45 a day in reduced driving costs.”
» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .
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