School funding, Miss. flag, highways on legislative agenda
JACKSON, Miss (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers begin their four-year term, and their four-month 2016 session, on Tuesday with a wide range of issues to consider:
Legislators could try to revise the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula has been fully funded only two years since it was put into law in 1997, and legislators are tired of being criticized for falling short of the mark.
Mississippi ranks schools A through F, like a report card, and the formula is based on per-pupil spending for a district with a C ranking. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has suggested the formula should be based on per-pupil spending at school districts ranked A or B. While this could reduce the amount needed to achieve full funding, lawmakers say they're seeking the most efficient use of tax dollars.
They could also consider expanding charter schools and finding ways to expand the use of tax dollars to send some children to private schools. They could revive the longstanding debate over appointing all superintendents and electing all school boards. They could attempt to consolidate some school districts. And, they could create a state-run district to take over academically troubled districts.
Lawmakers could consider removing the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi flag. The public display of Confederate symbols came under debate after the massacre of nine black worshippers in June at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Mississippi is the last state with a flag that features the Confederate emblem. Some see the symbol is reminiscent of slavery and segregation, while others see it as a symbol of heritage. Several cities and counties and some universities have stopped flying the flag.
This session could mark the first time in 15 years for the flag to get serious debate. The Confederate emblem has been on the Mississippi flag since 1894, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status since 1906 when state laws were updated and sections dealing with the flag were not carried forward. During the 2001 session, lawmakers didn't want to make a decision about the flag, so they sent the issue to a statewide election and voters chose to keep the emblem.
After Charleston, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said his Christian faith caused him to see the flag as a divisive symbol that needs to be changed. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant says he respects the result of the 2001 election, but he has also said that if the flag design is revisited, it should be done in November 2016 because voter turnout is typically highest during presidential election years.
If legislators are going to change the flag themselves, they would need to muster a two-thirds majority to overcome a veto. That's unlikely to happen.
Mississippi Economic Council, the state Chamber of Commerce, released a report in December saying that Mississippi needs to invest $375 million in highways and bridges, but the big question is how to find the money. The report suggests lawmakers consider higher fuel taxes, license plate fees, rental car taxes or general sales taxes.
Bryant says any tax increase would need to be offset by decreasing taxes somewhere else, but he has not offered specifics.
The report says $375 million would replace 562 deficient bridges, including every state bridge with timber underpinnings and 138 where deterioration means the department has posted a weight limit lower than the design capacity. They also say it would be enough to repave many roads.
Reeves says he wants to reduce the franchise tax to help businesses. The change is estimated to cost at least $240 million. Critics, including many Democratic lawmakers, have said cutting the franchise tax would do little to help working people.
During the election-year session of 2015, Gunn proposed phasing out the state income tax over several years, with reductions happening only if the economy grew at a relatively healthy pace. It's unclear whether Gunn will revive that proposal now that the economic growth has slowed to a crawl.
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, says he will file a bill that would allow congregations to designate people who could carry guns inside or around churches or other houses of worship. Gipson - who's an attorney and pastor of a small, rural Baptist church - said one current state law seems to generally prohibit carrying guns in churches, but another allows people with enhanced concealed-carry permits to carry guns there. The enhanced concealed-carry permit requires a person to take gun safety classes. Gipson said his proposal would be designed to eliminate the conflict in the two current laws.
Gipson said many congregations, such as his, can't afford to hire security guards, and his bill is designed to help them. He said the proposal was prompted by the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
"Most of our churches are just wide open," said Gipson, whose congregation at Gum Springs Baptist Church has about 100 members. He said if somebody like the Charleston shooter walked in, "most people wouldn't be prepared."
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