The 2023 session of the Mississippi Legislature was a busy one, but was it a productive one? Is the state better off for the bills that were enacted and those that weren’t over the past three months in Jackson.
Yes and no.
Lawmakers met their statutory obligation to enact a balanced budget, but that was an easy lift given the $4 billion surplus in the state treasury. The bigger challenge was deciding how much of that cushion to use and where to use it.
The Legislature made one particularly good call with the money, putting an extra $620 million into roads, bridges and other infrastructure, after doing something similar last year to the tune of $230 million. Almost a billion dollars over the past two years will go a long way to helping the state catch up in an area that had been neglected for some time because of lawmakers’ refusal to raise the fuel tax to keep up with inflation. Massive federal outlays in pandemic relief and for infrastructure have made adjustments to the fuel tax unnecessary for now.
Education also got a big bump for the second year in a row. A year after enacting a historic teacher pay raise, lawmakers kicked in about $120 million extra for the state’s K-12 schools. The Senate wanted to do 50% more than that while also retooling the education funding formula to make it a more realistic target than it has been since its creation in 1997. That was a step too far for the House, though. The compromise — more funding, same formula — works for now, but it is pointless to have a funding formula that lawmakers know on the front end they won’t follow. Better for everyone to come up with one they will.
Sometimes lawmakers should also get credit for what they didn’t do. Skipping additional tax relief was a surprising but welcome development. Before the session started, it seemed certain there would be another round of tax reductions. It was only a matter of deciding on what form they would take. House Speaker Philip Gunn continued to push for total elimination of an already slimmed-down personal income tax; Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann wanted to either issue a one-time income-tax rebate or cut the tax on groceries.
More cautious minds in the Legislature, though, prevailed, saying they wanted to see the impact on the treasury of previous tax cuts that were still being phased in. There also are lingering concerns about a national economic downturn that has been long-predicted but has yet to materialize. Hitting the pause button on tax policy was the right move.
In at least two other areas, though, legislative inaction remains inexcusable.
Lawmakers failed to restore the right of citizens to change state law through the initiative process, despite assurances two years ago that they would do so.
Even worse, the Republican majorities continued to dig in their heels against Medicaid expansion.
Lawmakers put up $104 million in emergency funding for the state’s struggling hospitals to try to help them survive. That infusion, though, could have been multiplied many times over if Mississippi had expanded Medicaid to cover mostly the working poor, as 40 other states have done. With the generous federal match, $104 million could have turned into $1 billion for hospitals and other providers, and even more in the first two years of expansion. Only those blinded by their political ideologies refuse to do the math.
On balance, we’d give the 2023 legislative session a passing grade, but it could have been much better.
Greenwood Commonwealth, April 6
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