The budget is a primary issue every year. Redistricting joins it every 10 years. There”s not much suspense heading into Mississippi”s 2011 legislative session.
Local lawmakers joined their counterparts in Jackson today to begin debating which state programs to cut and by how much. At the same time they”ll look for ways to massage district lines to encompass an equal number of voters and deliver the plan to the U.S. Justice Department in time to avoid running back-to-back election campaigns.
The budget will have the most immediate impact on Mississippi citizens. Some legislators are optimistic the most important programs can be budgeted as much as last year.
“We will do good if we can have a budget similar to last year”s,” said Representative Gary Chism, R-Columbus. “We will do our best to keep K-12 from enduring any more cuts if possible. But other agencies like public safety and public health are going to have to take a cut. Probably 8-10 percent.”
Others” expectations aren”t quite as high.
“I don”t think we can get level funding on anything,” said Senator Terry Brown, R-Columbus. “K-12 is always an issue. You”ve got the Mississippi Adequate Education Program that a lot of people want fully funded. There”s no way we can fully fund it.”
Brown says the most important program for the state to fund right now is workforce training, which he says will provide a competent workforce for the new industries moving to Mississippi while alleviating rampant unemployment. Chism says the focus should be saving $180 million in reserves in anticipation of another lean year in 2012. Representative Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, supports level funding for Medicaid and K-12 education.
Redistricting is likely to be just as contentious as budgeting. Chism says the process is skewed in favor of Democrats in the House, where the redistricting committee is composed of nine Democrats and one Republican. The Senate committee consists of five members from each side of the aisle.
“The Democrats want to try to keep their numbers,” said Chism.
Brown”s primary concern is getting House and Senate plans to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval before the June 1 qualifying deadline for candidates.
If districts aren”t redrawn before then, members of congress have a lot of campaigning in front of them.
“If everybody has to run in the old districts and let a three-judge panel draw districts, we”ll have to run again. And that would be very expensive for counties to have to run back-to-back elections in these tough economic times.,” said Brown.
Harrison said the last round of redistricting in 2001, one year after she began her first term, was bearable.
“It wasn”t that difficult as far as my district was concerned. I have a compact district, mainly Columbus. I used to have part of Clay County but I gave that up,” she said.
Representatives and senators will meet with their respective redistricting committees to exchange ideas.
Budgeting and redistricting won”t be the only issues tackled over the next three months. Plenty of new legislation will be proposed. Some will be repeats of laws proposed in the past and many will be met with the same lack of support. Others will strike a chord and end up on the books.
Chism has plans to introduce a bill similar to Arizona”s controversial immigration law, will ask for sales tax on motorcycles to be lowered from 7 to 5 percent and will again make the case for electing school board members across the state who would then appoint superintendents.
He”ll also propose the Public Safety Verification and Enforcement Act, which would make automotive insurance information public, and ask for several changes in election law. Chism”s election legislation would prevent any individual from witnessing more than 10 absentee ballot signatures and would prevent candidates and campaigns from providing food and drink during hours elections are taking place.
“In some counties (campaigns) will carry people to the polls and on the way back will stop by a barbecue or a fish fry. That”s no different than giving someone a half-pint of whiskey for their vote,” said Chism.
Brown is seeking a permanent exemption from ad valorem taxes for houses built on military facilities by private contractors. An executive order from the governor currently exempts military installations like Columbus Air Force Base from paying the taxes.
If the executive order is allowed to expire when Gov. Haley Barbour leaves office and Mississippi military facilities are forced to pay taxes on privately built houses, Brown is concerned that could put those bases at a disadvantage when the military”s Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) performs its next round of inspection.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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