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JACKSON – The Mississippi State Senate continued work to shrink the number of school districts statewide, support children with special needs and strengthen the punishment for certain criminal acts in the 2017 legislative session that ended today.
Republicans also delivered on a promise to trim state government and lower taxpayers’ debt burden in Fiscal 2018, which begins July 1. Agencies will be forced to operate more efficiently under a $5.6 billion general fund budget.
“Voters sent us to the Capitol to make state agencies live within their means and trim the size of government,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said. “We’re not going to operate as they do in Washington D.C. and borrow money we cannot afford to pay back. I appreciate the leadership of Gov. Bryant and Speaker Gunn as we work together to enact solid, conservative policies for Mississippi.”
For the second time in six years, the session ended without a bond bill, meaning no new projects will be charged to the state’s credit card. Also the state will pay off about $300 million in debt.
Reductions in agency spending varied from 1 to 14 percent as legislators prioritized public education and public safety and reduced spending in other areas. The budget includes $20 million for the School Recognition Program, which rewards teachers for raising student achievement.
The Department of Public Safety also will host a trooper school to train more highway patrol officers within the next year.
The Legislature also implemented initiatives to find savings in agencies. House Bill 938 places a year-long halt on agency vehicle purchases. Similar moratoriums saved taxpayers $9 million annually.
The effort to reduce the number of boards and commissions continued as both Senate Bill 2572 and House Bill 1330 passed to eliminate those groups that are inactive.
Also, House Bill 1425, the Occupational Board Compliance Act of 2017, removes regulations on licensing agencies and directs them to support job growth in their fields.
In addition to adopting a fiscally responsible budget, the Legislature focused on improving educational outcomes. The effort to reduce the number of school districts in Mississippi continued with Senate Bill 2463 (the consolidation of Houston and Chickasaw County school districts) and Senate Bill 2461 (creating a commission to study consolidation of Perry County and Richton school districts).
Other student-centered bills were:
• Senate Bill 2311, which is the Mississippi Achieving a Better Life Experience Act that allows families to establish tax-exempt accounts to fund the care for individuals with disabilities. Contributions can be made until the child is 21 years old.
• Senate Bill 2273, which requires schools to teach cursive-style writing to students.
• Senate Bill 2398, which requires stricter qualifications to serve as school superintendent.
• Senate Bill 2431, which allows the state to make meaningful changes to school districts that repeatedly fail rating measures. The goal is to prevent districts that historically score an “F” rating and force administrators to increase focus on academic improvement and not only accreditation violations.
• House Bill 1046, which establishes scholarships for students with dyslexia in grades 7-12 to attend the school that meets their needs. The program currently exists for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Also, several new laws were passed to improve public safety and bring transparency to political expenditures. Bills sent to Gov. Phil Bryant include:
• Senate Bill 2680, which allows domestic violence to be considered as a ground for divorce in court. Mississippi was one of the few states in the nation that did not specifically outline domestic violence as a ground for divorce.
• House Bill 1089, the Rivers McGraw Act, which establishes a pilot program for mental health courts to direct individuals to proper treatment rather than keep them in jails. The goal of the law is to help individuals seek help for addiction and other issues.
• Senate Bill 2710 that prohibits cities, counties and campuses from defying federal immigration laws.
• House Bill 645, the Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Act, which allows prosecutors to seek more prison time or other punishments for any individual who harms a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical worker due to their employment as a first responder.
• Senate Bill 2689, which brings more transparency to political expenses and places restrictions on spending to campaign-related needs. The bill includes a prohibition on personal expenses, payments to relatives and loans to candidates.
Making Mississippi communities a positive place to raise a family continues to be a priority, and several bills adopted aim at that goal, including:
• Senate Bill 2514, which establishes the Mississippi Advisory Council on Faith-Based Initiatives in the Office of the Governor to encourage opportunities for community and faith-based groups to assist government in delivering services effectively.
• House Bill 1090, which protects against fraud in the Division of Medicaid.