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Analysis: Mississippi lawmakers leave big issues unresolved

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Mississippi Legislature put only a few big items on their to-do list for 2018, and two of the biggest — education and transportation— remained unresolved when the nearly three-month session was gaveled to a close Wednesday.

The House and Senate completed two must-do items: They wrote a $6.1 billion state budget for the year that begins July 1, and agreed on a plan for Medicaid services.

Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy, comes up for legislative review every few years, including this one. The program covers 1 in 4 Mississippi residents and brings in billions of federal dollars that undergird the health care economy. Legislators didn’t want to relinquish their own control over the program and give Medicaid administrators a greater say over what services are covered and how providers are reimbursed.

Legislators’ inability to rewrite the education funding formula or to set a comprehensive, long-term plan for transportation raises questions about whether they will have the energy or political will to tackle complex issues during the election-year session of 2019. Most of the 122 House members and 52 senators will be seeking new four-year terms, and some will be running for regional or statewide offices. Candidates’ filing deadline will be March 1, about two-thirds of the way through the 2019 session.

The fear of angering voters means that divisive issues such as creating a lottery or removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag are almost certain to be non-starters in 2019, just as they have been in recent years.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is gearing up to run for governor in 2019. In a post-session interview Wednesday, he shrugged off questions about whether election-year pressure will complicate lawmakers’ work on complex issues like transportation.

“It won’t affect any decisions that I make,” Reeves said.

A school funding formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was written into state law by a Democratic-controlled Legislature in 1997, over the veto of a Republican governor, Kirk Fordice. It’s designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, but it has been fully funded only two years since it was fully in place. Education advocates consistently criticize legislators for the short funding.

Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have said for nearly two years that they want the Legislature to rewrite the formula to something they believe would be simpler. Efforts fizzled in 2017 and again this year amid opposition from school administrators and groups such as the Parents’ Campaign, which lobbies for public education funding. While a rewrite bill passed the House this year, it faltered in the Senate as some Republicans sided with Democrats in opposition.

“We did our part on the House,” Gunn said. “I’m very proud of our House members who voted for that. I think it was a better way to fund schools, I think it was an opportunity to make a real impact on our education system.”

The state chamber of commerce, Mississippi Economic Council, has urged lawmakers for years to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on transportation, saying safe highways and bridges are vital to job creation. However, many lawmakers oppose increasing gasoline or diesel taxes.

House leaders proposed sending $100 million to cities and counties for road projects, from revenue the state collects on items sold through catalogs or over the internet. Reeves proposed a more elaborate plan that included taking money leftover at the end of a state budget year and putting part of it into infrastructure.

Although House and Senate negotiators couldn’t agree on a long-term transportation plan, they decided the state would borrow $50 million to help pay for local bridges — a one-year cash infusion that some characterized as a victory and others said was a relatively small step in addressing a large quality-of-life problem.

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Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.

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