2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Mississippi

Despite a brief three-month session, the Mississippi State Legislature still managed to pass some progressive legislation -- and  progressives managed to head off most anti-immigrant and anti-worker proposals along with a veritable host of bills that sought to encourage religious worship in public and in the workplace.

Budget:  The state approved a $5.5 billion budget including significant funding cuts across a wide spectrum of state programs.  Lawmakers included a contingency plan to add back in $110 million in funding if Congress approves additional federal aid for states.  This followed nine rounds of spending cuts by the Governor, who had trimmed 9% from what an initial budget proposal of roughly $6 billion.

Education:  Gov. Barbour signed HB 1622, an education funding bill, which decreased education funding by $37 million relative to the previous fiscal year.  Mississippi's education budget is currently $232 million below the baseline funding level required under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the state law requiring an adequate education for every Mississippi child.

In response to federal 'Race to the Top' education funding goals, Mississippi also passed SB 2293, which allows parents with children in low-performing public schools to petition to restructure their schools as charter or 'new start' schools.

Immigration:  Progressives and immigrant and workers' rights advocates scored a major success in passing HB 930, a proposal with a critical amendment (added on the House floor) to extend licenses to all classes of legally present immigrants.  The original proposal would have limited licenses to immigrants with green cards and those who are naturalized US citizens.  HB 930 was signed into law by Gov. Barbour on March 24th, and will become effective July 1, 2010.

An omnibus anti-immigrant bill, SB 2032, reminiscent of Arizona's much-vilified anti-immigrant law, died in the House Judiciary Committee after passing the State Senate.  The failed proposal would have mandated costly 287(g) agreements that deputize state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration law; made it a crime to "transport" an undocumented resident in a car, even if they are a friend or family member; and removed all bars to state agencies sharing any and all information on residents' immigration status with federal immigration enforcement officials.

Anti-Bullying:  SB 2015 requires school districts to develop policies to protect victims of school bullying and address retaliation against witnesses by the end of 2010.  The bill was passed by the Legislature despite opposition from the School Board Association, which fought to have the original bill watered down.

Abortion and Health Care Reform:  State lawmakers ended the session on April 28th by removing procedural roadblocks to send SB 3214, which would ban public funding of abortions under the new federal health care exchanges, to Governor Haley Barbour for his signature.  Mississippi already bars public funding of elective abortions.

Criminal Justice and Mental Health:  Several positive bills focused on the criminal, juvenile justice, and mental health systems also passed this session.  With the passage of HB 160, some criminal records will now be expunged five years after all prison terms and conditions of the sentence are completed.  Formerly incarcerated individuals can also petition the court system to expunge their full criminal record afterward.  SB 2969 affirms that youth courts have primary jurisdiction for individuals under age 18 -- erecting key barriers to youth being tried as adults.  HB 1049, by providing for a single point of entry into the mental health system for those who enter the criminal justice system, streamlines access to mental health services for state residents.  The bill also provides training for police officers on mental health, and emphasizes procedures for residents to receive treatment for mental health issues as an alternative to incarceration.

Finally, HB 1135 prohibits police and jailers from using prisoners for sexual favors -- a prohibition that previously did not exist in the law.

Coastal Insurance:  Gov. Barbour vetoed a $20 million earmark for the state's windpool fund -- the wind insurer of last resort for many coastal homeowners -- generating strong criticism from the state's Gulf Coast lawmakers.

Unemployment Insurance:  Despite its approval by the state House of Representatives, a proposal to modernize the state's unemployment insurance system and increase protections for low-income workers, was ultimately blocked by the Lieutenant Governor who presides over the Senate.