The 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.
The Gas Tax
One of the bills that was passed out of committee without first being read and discussed was HB1733. This is the "big bond bill". Every year there is a huge bond bill that comes out of the House Ways and Means Committee that obligates the State to borrow millions of dollars for various projects. There is always tens of millions for universties so they can continue building buildings that we can't afford. This is also the bill where leadership "pays back" legislators who have obediently followed and done what they were told. (I'm not one of those legislators)
But the bonds were not the most offensive part of this bill, hidden deep within this bill was the code sections to increase the gas tax and cigarette tax. Which meant that during the process this bill could have been amended to increase the gas tax and taxes on cigarettes without legislators knowing. Do you remember how upset everyone was when Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the members of Congress they must "pass this bill to know what's in this bill"? Well, that is what happened last week in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Luckily, with the help of hundreds of citizens we were able to draw enough attention to this bill and create enough resistance that HB1733 was withdrawn and never considered by the House. Russ Latino of the Americans for Prosperity-MS Foundation and Elaine Vechorik of Mississippi for Liberty, lead the fight against this bill and through their efforts legislators received hundreds of emails and calls demanding the House kill the bill. On Tuesday afternoon the announcement was made to the members that HB1733 would not be taken up by the House.
By the way, HB1733 was replaced with HB1734. This is still a bad bill because it obligates the State to borrow money for many unneeded projects. While we cut budgets for agencies and programs that citizens want and need like libraries, we continue to borrow money. The Motion Picture Incentive Act requires the State of Mississippi to borrow millions of dollars to have movies filmed in our state. The problem with this is that it has been proven that we get only .49 cents back for every dollar we spend. So the people of Mississippi are subsidizing the movie industry. It's ridiculous that we can't get "conservative" politicians to stop wasting the states money. There is certainly the appearance of evil in this deal.
I hate to always highlight the negative of the legislature so here is something good that happened this week. The Senate Education Committee looked at House Bill 1046, the Dyslexia Scholarship bill and passed it with some very positive amendments.
House Bill 1046, makes a few important changes to our current dyslexia scholarship, including:
- The scholarships will be expanded to students through 12th grade. The program is currently only available through 6th grade. This will serve students who did not receive the appropriate dyslexia services when they were younger.
- Accredited private schools will be allowed to accept the scholarships, provided they meet all the standards, including employing licensed dyslexia therapists. The program currently requires schools to be accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education, which significantly limits the number of schools who can participate.
- Students living in border counties will be allowed to use the scholarship in another state, if appropriate educational services are not available within thirty miles of the student’s home.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability in America and affects somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population. This means there are thousands of Mississippi students with dyslexia, who without specialized therapy, will struggle to read and write. The Dyslexia Scholarship will help parents who are desperate to find help for their child. It baffles me how some who claim to care so much about education care so little about ensuring children get the help they need.
Visiting Your Capitol
This week students from around the state participated in the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi's Youth Leadership Program. Students study aspects of leadership, enjoy a first-hand look at our state government in action, sharpen their leadership skills, and hear presentations from government leaders, local business leaders and rural electric cooperative professionals. I am proud to say that Desoto County had the largest group of young leaders of any other county from the state.
Chris Brown of Olive Branch High School received the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi 2017 Overall Youth Leadership Award at the end of the Youth Leadership Workshop. As the winner, he will represent the state of Mississippi at the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi Annual Meeting & at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Annual Meeting next year, he will also receive a college scholarship. Chris was also selected by his peers, as the winner of the Spirit Award.