Lessons of a Mississippi Freshman Legislator

Dana.Criswell.jpgBy Rep. Dana Criswell

(This article appeared on Mississippi Conservative Daily, September 6, 2017)

On new years day 2015 my wife, Julie and I sat down and discussed the idea of me running for Mississippi district 6 state representative. I've lived in Olive Branch since 1998, watching politics from a distance, mostly voting and complaining about government. As a strong second amendment supporter I had become involved in politics through my efforts to improve our gun laws, and after learning about how government works I was compelled to get more involved.

Over the last 3 years I've learned many lessons about politics and government. Here are five that stand out.

 1. There are approximately 20 principled immovable people in the MS House of Representatives

 I expected to walk onto the floor of the MS House of Representatives and be greeted by 121 other Type-A personalities. After-all, these men and women are required to make decisions that affect the 3 million citizens of our state. I assumed they would be confident decisive people but, I found instead approximately 20 principled legislators and 101 who are afraid to voice an opinion. I was surprised at the number of times other legislators told me they agreed with my position but were afraid to vote with me because of pressure from leadership or politicians back home. These legislators actually believe in the conservative principles on which they were elected but are afraid to stand up for their convictions. I was completely caught off guard by this and could not understand why they were so afraid.

 2. Politicians value one thing – re-election

 I’ve begun to understand why these conservative minded legislators are so afraid to stand on principle and vote their convictions. The most important thing to the majority of elected officials is re-election. It drives them, it's what keeps them awake at night. The draw of being re-elected controls every move they make. One of the first things I was told when I stood on an unpopular belief (unpopular among politicians not citizens) was that I could never be re-elected if I held to that view. That statement confused me at first because I knew I was originally elected because I promised to hold to that belief. But I've since learned that what they are really saying is that if I hold to a belief and vote accordingly the power brokers at the state capitol will be unhappy and will not give me money to run a re-election campaign.

As a citizen I've asked many times why politicians change once elected, why do they say one thing but then vote another. I've come to learn that it's the split between pleasing the people to get their vote and pleasing the lobbyist to get their money. Because to win an election you need both, votes and money.

 

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From Your Capitol - First Extraordinary Session 2017

statecapitol.jpgThe Mississippi Legislature convened on Monday, June 5, for a special session called by Governor Phil Bryant.

The special session was necessary after appropriations for the Attorney General’s office, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and State Aid Roads were not agreed upon during the regular session.  

Governor Bryant faced pressure to expand the special session to include increasing taxes and borrowing.  I am please that he resisted that pressure and protected the people of Mississippi from the ever growing government intrusion into our lives.  Many in state government lament the fact that government agencies have been forced to reduce their budgets.  They long for days when government has more money to fund more programs and continue the its exponential growth.  

The 2018 budget for the State of Mississippi is over $6 billion and while state agencies have experience budget cuts none are so drastic that they can not perform their mission.  In fact, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee related to the House a conversation he had with the Director of the State Department of Health.  Chairman Reed was told that the department is restructuring and implementing cost savings measures but they are still capable of performing their duties.  That is just one example of where budget cuts are good, they are forcing state agencies to spend YOUR money better.

In addition to deciding on budgets for these entities, the Governor also called for legislators to vote on the creation of the Financial and Operational Responses that Invigorate Future Years (FORTIFY) Act and make clarifications to the Budget Transparency and Simplification Act. 

The House voted first on House Bill 2, which detailed appropriations for MDOT. House members removed many special projects from the original bill, crafted by the Senate. The House has taken a stand against legislators filling appropriation bills with personal pork projects and stood strong on that conviction. The House also passed a budget for the Attorney General’s office, in the form of House Bill 1, and allotted $175 million to State Aid Road Construction in the form of Senate Bill 2003

 

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Through Leadership of the DeSoto County Delegation, MS House voted for a tax cut

Tax-Cut.jpg

By Dana Criswell

Over the past two years a majority of the State Representatives from DeSoto County have taken a hard stand against the constant raising of taxes by local governments. These taxes come in the form of sales taxes on items such as restaurant purchases and hotel rooms. According to the Mississippi Constitution, local governments who wish to raise taxes on their citizens in this manner must first seek permission from the state legislature. The proposed tax, once approved by the legislature, must then be voted on by the people of the city. That all sounds good and fair until the politicians get involved.

What has developed is a system of hide and seek that perpetuates the continuance of these taxes indefinitely without the knowledge of the people. When one of these local taxes is first implemented and voted on by the people the tax has a repeal date that requires the tax to end in four years. But what happens is that in four years, when the citizens expect the tax to end, the local politicians collude with the politicians in state government and quietly extend the tax without the knowledge of the local citizens.

The DeSoto delegation to the MS House has fought against this practice demanding the tax either end as promised or the people of the city be given the right to vote on extending the tax. As expected, some politicians hate the idea of giving people the ability to make decisions and have fought hard against ending this practice. This is exactly what happened this week when the vast majority of the MS House of Representatives voted against a bill that would have given the people of Southaven and Horn Lake the ability to decide if they wanted to continue a special tax.

SB2949 and SB2927 both proposed to extend a tax on the people without a vote by the people. The Representatives from DeSoto County attempted to amend both bills to give the citizens of each city the right to vote for an extension of the tax or to vote against an extension of the tax, but the majority of the House voted to not allow the amendment thereby stripping the citizens of their right to vote. What was left was the original Senate Bills that simply continued the practice of taxing people without giving them a vote.

 The DeSoto delegation encouraged the members of the House to vote against SB2949 & SB2927 thereby cutting taxes.

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From Your Capitol - Week of March 13

at_well_2016.jpgThe deadline to consider revenue and appropriations bills that originated in the Senate occurred this week. Among other things, these bills detail how much money will be appropriated to a number of different state boards and departments.  

This week I've received several phone calls and emails about the legality of Amazon collecting "sales tax".  Many citizens are questioning how Amazon is collecting a tax that was not approved by the legislature.  This is a legitimate question that I hope to answer.

As many of you know, HB 480 the internet sales tax bill, passed the House but was rightfully killed by Lt. Gov. Reeves.  

In a statement recorded by Mississippi Today Reeves said, 

“Frankly, we believe the bill is unconstitutional, I have yet to hear from one lawyer who thinks otherwise, including many of the House members who voted for this bill." 

So how can Amazon collect a tax that was not approved by the legislature? 

During the time the legislature was debating the "internet sales tax" the Mississippi Department of Revenue was negotiating with Amazon to collect the "use tax" that has been a part of Mississippi law for over five decades.  A "use tax," is a tax due on the purchase of property acquired "for use, storage or consumption within this State on which Sales or Use Tax has not been paid to another state...," according to the Mississippi Department of Revenue (DOR).

The tax is not on the business from which you purchased the item. The tax is assessed on the item itself, and you as the purchaser owe the tax.  The Department of Revenue has then negotiated with Amazon to collect a use tax on items you purchase.  Amazon is essentially doing this for you.

But this creates many questions that continue to be unanswered, such as;

  • What is the negotiated deal DOR has made with Amazon? The Mississippi Department of Revenue has refused to release details of the agreement they entered into on behalf of the citizens of this state?
  • Has the state agency obligated taxpayers to any agreement?
  • Did DOR agree to pursue regulations that would require other companies collect the use tax?
  • Does the agreement at Amazon’s request give Amazon a competitive advantage over competitors?
  • Did DOR agree to give Amazon some kind of benefit for voluntarily coming forward and agreeing to collect use taxes for DOR? If so, what are the details of that contract between a state agency and a collection company?
  • Did DOR agree to shield third-party sellers on Amazon’s platform from collecting use tax?

Mike Hurst, director of Mississippi Justice Institute said, “Mississippi law requires government transparency and accountability. As taxpayers, the public should be allowed to know the details of our state agencies’ agreements and contracts with outside entities – in this case a billion dollar corporation collecting taxes on behalf of the state. These details are particularly important because they involve an issue with current active legislative debate and recently completed but not yet enacted rulemaking by the Department of Revenue. The state is making policy on this issue without revealing public information which could inform the citizens,” 

This agreement between the State of Mississippi and Amazon affects every citizens of this state but no representative of the people  has access to the agreement.  No citizen has any idea how to file their "use tax" at the end of the year or how much Amazon has remitted to the State on their behalf. If Amazon does not remit the full 7% they collect on a citizens behalf, does the citizen owe the difference?

There is little doubt that the Mississippi Department of Revenue is a government agency out-of-control.  They believe they have the authority to act outside of the legislature, outside of the law and with total disregard for the people of this state.

What can you do?

Do not be silenced, complain, email, make noise!  Those in control hope that with time you will move on to something else, that you will forget the injustice and disregard they exhibit for the people of this state.  They hope that fear of retribution by the tax collector is enough to shut you up!

The Commissioner of Revenue is appointed by the Governor, let Governor Bryant know that at the very least you expect him to represent your interest by demanding the Department of Revenue release the agreement made on your behalf.  Also, demand that your state representative and state senator stand up for you and join Gov. Bryant in that demand.

Do not let anyone silence you!  As a citizen of this state you have a right to know what your government is doing.

Use this link to Ask Gov. Bryant to Block Amazon Tax  provided by American's for Prosperity.

 

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From Your Capitol - Week of March 6

MS_CAPITOL.jpgWith only three weeks left in the 2017 legislative sessions the Mississippi House is reaching some of its final deadlines.  Wednesday marked the deadline for the House to discuss general bills that passed through the Senate earlier this session. The deadline to discuss appropriations and revenue bills passed by the Senate will occur next week.

On Monday, the House passed Senate Bill 2680, which clarifies alternative relatives that may care for a child who is being abused or neglected. An amendment was adopted regarding a current divorce statute, making it easier for someone experiencing domestic violence to receive a divorce. The amendment says divorce would be allowed for people experiencing abusive physical conduct, either threatened or attempted, or abusive non-physical conduct including threats, intimidation, emotional or verbal abuse. The measure also allows for a victim to serve as the witness of the abuse. The bill passed unopposed.

On Tuesday, the House passed Senate Bill 2710, which will prohibit the adoption or enactment of sanctuary cities. A sanctuary city is loosely defined as a city that welcomes refugees and illegal immigrants. Supporters of the bill say this is an extra measure of safety for Mississippi residents. Those opposed say this legislation is unnecessary. The bill passed by a vote of 76-41.

A bill meant to give a tax exemption to private entities providing affordable housing for university students sparked discussion at the proposal of an amendment. An amendment added to Senate Bill 2509 would require schools to fly the state flag on their campus to receive this benefit. Proponents of the amendment said state schools should be flying the flag if they want to receive state money. Opponents said the flag is divisive and should not be forced on the schools. The bill passed by a vote of 77-42, but is being held on a motion to reconsider.

I was happy to see that leadership in the legislature finally listened to those of us who have agreed repairing our roads and bridges is important but that increasing taxes on the citizens of Mississippi was not the appropriate way to accomplish that goal.  We have demanded that the State reallocate money for that purpose.  The amendment to Senate Bill 2939 would provide $50 million in bonds for bridge repairs and allocate use tax to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, counties and municipalities for infrastructure repair.  This bill does not take any additional money from the people.  

The bill also states that in the event a use tax from out-of-state sellers becomes federal law or the state experiences revenue growth, a certain percentage will be set aside for road and bridge improvements. The bill passed by a majority vote of 109-7.  

The House proposal outlines:

  • $50 million in bonds: $25 million to counties, and $25 million to cities for bridge repairs.
  • Allocating the use tax Mississippi is already receiving through voluntary payments on out-of-state purchases by Mississippi residents: 50% to MDOT if they internally reallocate $25 million in their existing budget to prioritize road and bridge repair, 25% to counties and 25% to cities for road and bridge improvements.
  • That if federal law changes, allowing for the collection of the use tax from out-of-state sellers, Mississippi will spend up to $200 million of that money on road and bridge improvements.
  • When our state general fund revenue grows more than 2% in one year, 50% of those dollars beyond the 2% growth (up to a max of $100 million) will be devoted to road and bridge improvement under the same formula.
  • this law would automatically repeal after 8 years to allow the legislature to reevaluate the needs of MDOT and or roads and bridges.

 

This solution is a win for the people of Mississippi and was possible only because the citizens demanded government make difficult decisions and not take the easy way of increasing taxes.

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From Your Capitol - Week of February 27

Dana.Criswell.jpgThis week the Mississippi House of Representatives met in committees to consider bills passed by the Senate. The bills approved by committees this week now await action by the full House.  The deadline for the House to consider Senate bills is March 8th.

You can view them on the House Calendar here

On Monday I enjoyed touring a Clinton, MS elementary school.  The Clinton school district participates in the 1 to 1 Apple Laptop Initiative, every student has either an iPad or an Apple Laptop computer.  The dedication by the superintendent, principles and teachers was impressive and it was obvious why Clinton is one of the top school districts in our state.  As I walked through elementary classrooms observing students they were all engaged and seemed eager to learn.

But the question that must be answered is how much of that success can be attributed to the use of technology and how much is attributed to the dedication of the teachers and administration who create a learning environment that allows the students to excel.  As a one time home-school parent what I observed looked much more like a home-school learning environments than most traditional public school classrooms.

The use of technology and how we implement it into our schools is an important question that we must address, equipping every student with a computer is an extremely expensive undertaking.  Before we move forward we must ensure we are spending our resources wisely.

Cursive Writing

During my discussion with teachers the subject of cursive writing was addressed.  I expected these teachers to say cursive writing was no longer needed in the classroom, that students did not need to spend time learning something that they might never use in life.  But these teachers expressed a completely opposite opinion.  Each one talked about the need to bring back cursive writing into the curriculum. 

Here is just a few of the benefits of teaching cursive writing;
  • increases find motor skills and creativity 
  • creates better word recognition 
  • stimulates multiple parts of brain
  • affective benefit for dyslexic students

Senate Bill 2273, would require public schools implement cursive writing across their elementary school curriculum.  If passed public school children would be required to read and write in cursive by the 5th grade.  The House will consider this bill next week.

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From Your Capitol - Week of February 20

no_tax.jpgThe end of this week marked the deadline for House appropriations and revenue bills to be introduced and passed.  But the most interesting actions this week came from the Ways and Means committee.  The function of this committee is to assess legislation that deals with raising revenue. So in a year where the primary goal of leadership seems to be to take as much money from the citizens of Mississippi this committee is an important one to watch.  

I am not a member of this committee because money committees, like Appropriations and Ways and Means are generally reserved for more senior members of the House.  But since anyone can attend the committee meetings I make an effort to attend all that I can.  Actually, what most citizens don't know is that any citizen can attend any committee meeting taking place at the capitol. So, if you are interested in what is going on and would like to learn how the decisions are made, you are always welcome join your legislator as they attend committee meetings.

As legislation is assigned to a committee, ideally it shows up on the legislature's website and members have a little time to read and review the bill before it is brought up to the committee.  Larger committees like Ways and Means or Education often handle hundreds of bills during a legislative session so the chairman will divide the committee into sub-committees.  Each sub-committee will review their assigned bills and decide if it should be brought before the full committee.  

If a bill survives the scrutiny of the sub-committee the sub-committee chair is then responsible for presenting the bill to the committee as a whole.  Hopefully members have had an opportunity to review the bill before it's presented, but sometimes the first time a member is aware of a bill is when it's presented in the committee.  The sub-committee chairman presenting the bill must then explain and be prepared to answer questions so members can make an informed decision before they vote on the passage of the bill.  During this debate in the committee, any member can offer amendments to the bill, that must be approved by the whole committee.  If a majority of the committee supports the bill then it is sent to the House to consider.

What I've outlined above is the process that a bill should go through before it is voted on and presented to the House for consideration.  There are multiple opportunities for members to read, ask questions and debate a bill.  There is opportunity for sub-committee members and committee members to amend and change a bill to make it better.  Unfortunately this week in the Ways and Means Committee that is not the process I saw.

On Monday afternoon I attended the House Ways and Means Committee meeting where the chairman presented three bills to the committee that were not available for the committee to read.  That's right, go back and read that sentence again, I'll wait.  The chairman asked for unanimous consent from the committee members to present three bills that were not available for anyone to read.  There could be no debate, no discussion, no review, because no member was able to read or even look at the bill.  The only information available was the title of the bill.  The chairman offered a brief explanation of each bill and the members voted to pass each and send them to the House for a vote.

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From Your Capitol - Week of February 13

pamminyard.jpgThe week of February 13 was an odd week around the state capitol.  With general House Bills out of the way, representatives began working on House Appropriations Bills, which will determine how much money is given to various state agencies. 

This may sound like a very busy week but the reality is that nothing much happened.  The House was responsible for looking at the preliminary budgets of 54 state agencies, including the departments of transportation, public health, Medicaid, education and public safety.  To an outsider this sounds like some very important work. You might think that legislators would be engrossed in hearings and reading through mounds of budget proposals so they can make an informed decision. But that would not be the case. Leadership had already talked to all the agencies and the Legislative Budget Office, LBO, had already made recommendations on agency budgets. So when the House Appropriations Committee met, bills outlining the amount of money appropriated for each agency were passed with very little discussion.  This is also the week where political payback kicks into full gear and various pork projects begin finding their way into state funding bills.

Each budget included a reverse repealer, a clause which ensures that a bill cannot become law before going to a conference committee for further revisions. With reverse repealers in place, most appropriations bills were voted on by the full House, in a block to help speed up the process.  Because when you are spending $6 billion speed is apparently the most important aspect of the process.

Now that the House has passed its appropriations bills, they will be transmitted to the Senate. When the Senate removes the reverse repealer the bill must then go to a conference committee.  This is where a select few will actually do the work and make the decisions about how much money each agency receives.  Then the "real" appropriations bills come back to the full House for a vote.

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From Your Capitol - Week of February 6

Criswell_at_well.JPGThe 2017 legislative session is moving along quickly with this past week marking another major deadline.  The House met as a whole throughout the week to discuss bills that made it out of committees and onto the calendar. Thursday, Feb. 9, was the deadline for representatives to discuss House Bills. Any bills that were not discussed by Thursday died on the calendar. You can view the bills that are still alive here.

Legislation regarding internet sales tax, House Bill 480, finally passed the House with much debate.  This legislation will now move to the senate for more debate, I urge you to contact your senator and the Lt. Governor and express your opposition to the measure.  If passed, the State of Mississippi will suck $100 million out of the state's economy (that's in your pocket) and use that money to grow the size of government.  The State of Mississippi does NOT have an income problem we have a spending problem.

The death penalty became a topic of discussion at the introduction of House Bill 638. The bill revises the methods by which the death penalty can be carried out. In the event that lethal injection is deemed unusable, the death penalty could be carried out by use of a gas chamber, a firing squad or electrocution. Some oppose the death penalty because of religious or philosophical reasons, I believe it is an option societies have every right to use on the most heinous offenders.  This legislation is necessary to ensure that the death penalty can be carried out by giving alternatives in case one or more methods are blocked or appealed. The bill passed by a vote of 74-44. 

The introduction of House Bill 926 proposed the Health Care Collaboration Act. This act would authorize the board of trustees of the state Institution of Higher Learning (IHL) and the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to enter into a health care collaborative with other health organizations in the state. Supporters say this act will save rural hospitals and consumers money, while helping to modernize health care in rural areas. I opposed this legislation because I believe it would give UMMC an unfair advantage over other hospitals that are not backed by the state. If this legislation continues and becomes law, I believe it would start our state down the road of creating one government-run health care provider.  The bill passed by a vote of 89-24. I voted no.

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From Your Capitol - Week of January 30

tax_debate.pngThe final week of January was another extremely busy week at the Mississippi capitol.  Tuesday January 31st was the deadline for committees to pass legislation assigned to their committee.  Any bill not sent to the House floor is now labeled "died in committee".  Many good bills were allowed to die in their committee, some because there was opposition and others because someone in leadership didn't want the bill to be considered by the House.  But at the same time there was also many bad bill that died. More than 75% of the bills introduced did not make it past this deadline; of over 2,000 bills introduced this year, only about 500 are still alive today. You can view a list of the measures that are still active here

The political process is a difficult and grueling process that is often lined with good intentions by some and pure evil intentions by others.  Participating in this process is by far one of the most difficult task I've ever undertaken.

I was extremely disappointed this week when the House leadership brought House Bill 480 (Internet Sales Tax) before the House for a vote.  This bill would impose a tax on all internet purchases made by Mississippians.  This tax is illegal based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, and it will suck as much as a $150 million dollars a year out of our state's economy (that means your pocket). That money will be used to grow government which always limits freedoms. This un-republican idea must be stopped.

I strongly opposed this measure and spoke against it on the House floor during the debate.  I feel that many of the legislators in the House have forgotten their promise as Republicans.  Support of this money grab is also in clear violation of the Republican platform.  

National Republican Platform;

"We will consistently support internet policies that allow people and private enterprise to thrive, without providing new and expanded government powers to tax and regulate so that the internet does not become the vehicle
for a dramatic expansion of government power."

The bill has been held up in the House by a "motion to reconsider" which is a procedural move that requires the House to vote on the bill again.  The hope is that members will consider changing their vote and vote against this bill.

For more information about how this tax will harm Mississippi and it's citizens visit the Facebook page of American's for Prosperity-Mississippi 

 

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