Teacher increases, tax cuts top Mississippi session issues

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House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, explains a conference committee bill on education before lawmakers at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Monday, April 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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Mississippi lawmakers ended their busiest session in years after enacting the largest teacher pay increase in a generation and snagging the largest state income tax cut.

“Obviously, by any measure, the Mississippi Legislature has played this year,” Republican Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann said Tuesday.

After more than a year of economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi’s tax revenue has rebounded in recent months, thanks in part to massive federal pandemic relief spending.

As they wrapped up their session on Tuesday, lawmakers completed work on two sets of spending bills.

The first was a state government budget for the year that begins July 1, using more than $7 billion in state money and billions more federal dollars.

The second was a plan to spend about $1.5 billion of the $1.8 billion Mississippi receives from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a federal spending package aimed at revitalizing the economy amid of the pandemic. Mississippi will use about $750 million for water system improvements.

“When you consider the number of problems we had in front of us this year, it was pretty staggering at first,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican, said at the end of the session.

WHAT LEGISLATORS DID

TEACHER COMPENSATION

In the next school year, teachers will receive average increases of about $5,100 and assistant teachers will receive $2,000. The average teacher salary in Mississippi in 2019-20 was $46,843, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. The national average was $64,133.

TAX REDUCTION

Mississippi will reduce its income tax over four years. From 2023, the 4% tax bracket will be abolished. The following three years, the 5% portion will be reduced to 4%. After the first year, the non-taxable income levels would be $18,300 for a single person and $36,600 for a married couple.

MEDICAL CANNABIS

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed a bill Feb. 2 to legalize medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses. It came into effect immediately, but the opening of the first clinics will take months. In November 2020, voters in Mississippi approved a medical marijuana initiative. The state Supreme Court overturned it six months later ruling that it was not properly on the ballot because the initiative process was outdated.

ELECTORAL REDISTRIBUTION

Lawmakers updated the boundaries of the four U.S. House districts, 52 state Senate districts and 122 state House districts to account for demographic changes revealed by the 2020 census.

EQUAL PAY

Mississippi could become the last state to enact a law requiring equal pay for equal work between women and men. A bill awaits action by the governor. Critics said the bill is harmful because it would allow an employer to pay a woman less than a man based on the pay history workers bring into new jobs.

STATE PARKS

Millions of dollars will go towards improving the condition of state parks. Leaders said Mississippi could request federal funds to supplement state spending.

ELECTION EXPENSES

State and local election offices are prohibited from accepting donations from outside groups for election operations, under a bill Reeves signed. Mississippi joins other Republican-led states in imposing a ban in response to donations Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made across the United States in 2020.

RURAL EMERGENCY ROOMS

The state Department of Health could issue up to five licenses for stand-alone emergency rooms in rural areas, under a pending governor’s bill.

SALARY INCREASES

Beginning with the next four-year term, salaries would increase for the governor, lieutenant governor and six other state officials; transport and civil service commissioners; and the Speaker of the House, under a pending governor’s bill.

BREED TEACHING

In March, Reeves signed a bill prohibiting schools, community colleges or universities from teaching that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.” It became law immediately. Several black lawmakers have said the limitations could stifle honest discussion about the harmful effects of racism.

STATE SONG

Lawmakers voted to drop “Go, Mississippi,” which has been the state song since 1962. It uses the tune from “Roll With Ross,” segregationist Governor Ross Barnett’s 1959 campaign jingle. A bill designates “One Mississippi,” by singer-songwriter Steve Azar, as a new state song. It also creates a committee to recommend additional state songs from various genres. The bill awaits action by the governor.

WHAT LEGISLATORS DIDN’T DO

INITIATIVE PROCESS

House and Senate negotiators failed to agree on a plan to reinvigorate an initiative process that would allow people to petition to put issues on the statewide ballot. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in May that the state initiative process was impractical because it required people to collect signatures from five congressional districts the state had not used in decades.

MEDICAID FOR NEW MOMS

The Senate passed a bill to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage, but Gunn and House Medicaid Committee Chairman Joey Hood killed it without putting it to a House vote. Mississippi allows two months of Medicaid coverage for women after childbirth. Advocates for low-income women say extending coverage to one year could improve health outcomes in a state with a high maternal mortality rate.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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