Jackson, Miss. (Clarion Ledger) – With the Mississippi legislature’s next regular session less than two weeks away, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann laid out a number of priorities he’d like to see pass in 2023.
Atop his list were healthcare and infrastructure, with education and taxes also being mentioned during a meeting with news media Wednesday.
Hosemann, who leads the state Senate, said people often have preconceptions about legislative sessions during election years. State offices, including his own, will be up for grabs in November.
“Historically people say, well your fourth year during an election year not much happens, well, not here. We don’t do that. As you know this legislature has taken on just about everything it possibly could take on, and we’re going to take on a bunch more this coming year,” Hosemann said.
Hosemann addressed healthcare on multiple fronts. A Senate committee, which he called and is chaired by Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, has been studying ways to aid women, children and families following the near-total ban on abortion in Mississippi.
While the study committee cannot pass legislation directly, Hosemann said a number of its recommendations will be priorities of the Senate as a whole. Those include postpartum Medicaid expansion, which the Senate has passed a number of times in the past only to see if fail to gain support in the House.
Hosemann cited a study out of Texas, which found their expansion of Medicaid to women who are 60-days postpartum had positive impacts on a number of health metrics, including contraceptive use which is important to prevent potentially dangerous back-to-back pregnancies. Hosemann said the study “shows some pretty dramatic positive results.”
“We passed postpartum last year three times. I anticipate we will pass it again,” Hosemann said. “I think we’re only one of two that haven’t done this, two states, so I don’t want to be last, and I certainly don’t want to ignore the fact, the statistical fact, that women have better healthcare, and better mental healthcare, and more than likely that their babies are getting better care because their moms are. So, we’ll pass that again this year and I’m very hopeful.”
Some other potential bills to come out of the study committee include changes to the state’s foster care and child support laws. One specific change Hosemann proposed was the ability to deduct gambling winnings for individuals who owe child support.
Hosemann also addressed the crisis facing Mississippi’s rural hospitals. He said he met with stakeholders at Greenwood Leflore Hospital on Friday. Leaders at that hospital, which Hosemann called “the canary,” have told its employees that it is doing what it can to remain open until the session starts when aid from the legislature might come. Hosemann said even with significant reductions in services, including eliminating its OB/GYN services, the hospital is still projected to operate $20 million in the red.
“That is indicative of what we are facing in Mississippi,” Hosemann said. “We have a critical need in Mississippi on our hospitals.”
He said the legislature is likely to consider short-term relief for hospitals like Greenwood, but that the state should also reconsider its healthcare system more broadly.
“We’ve got to make some strategic decisions about how, how and how much and where, we are going to fund (healthcare),” Hosemann said.
Another key aspect of Hosemann’s priorities is infrastructure. The legislature allocated a record amount of money towards infrastructure the last session, mostly coming in the form of American Rescue Plan Act funds that were sent to local governments to match what they had set aside for water and sewer. The state left about $350 million unspent, and Hosemann said there will be an opportunity for local government to again apply for matching funds from that total.
That opens the door for some of that money to be spent on Jackson’s ailing water system. Jackson put up $37 million last year, which the state matched to increase the total to $74 million. Hinds County, however, did not apply for ARPA funds last year.
“I was disappointed. I made my disappointment known to just about everybody that would answer or listen to me,” Hosemann said. “I understand they have applied now, and that they will apply for $20 million for Jackson. I have not seen that application, but that’s what was promised to me, so we will match that.”
If Hinds County does apply for $20 million, Hosemann said the state’s match would bring the total ARPA funds going to the county to $40 million, bringing the total for the city and the county to more than $100 million from ARPA. That comes in addition to the $600 million in federal funds that are reportedly set to be included in the federal omnibus bill which Congress will vote on this week.
“It sounds to me like we’re in a position to make monumental changes in the delivery of water here in Jackson, which is sorely needed,” Hosemann said.
Hosemann also addressed funding for the Mississippi Department of Transportation emergency roads and bridges program. He said last year the legislature allocated $100 million towards the program, and this year he intends to allocate another $100 million.
“I think the total requests were about $300 million last year, so by doing this a second year we’re getting much closer to having our roads and bridges fully prepared to take on loads of our economics, of school buses as our children are on their way to school,” Hosemann said. “This was a goal that was basically unachievable four years ago, and now we’re on the cusp.”
Another priority for Hosemann is to make it easier for school districts that would like to move to a modified calendar to do so. He said the six school districts that currently use a modified calendar are seeing positive results, and there are other districts that would like to move to such a system but cannot afford the cost. Hosemann is proposing a grant program that would cover the additional costs of moving to a modified calendar.
“We don’t always need to do things the way they were always done. Now that has handicapped us,” Hosemann said. “We need to be able to be flexible enough to realize we’re not closing the schools to harvest anymore. We need to have our kids in school. They need to be prepared to compete not just with Arkansas and Alabama, but with China and the rest of the world.”
Hosemann also addressed taxes. The state passed its largest-ever tax cut last session after a compromise was reached between Hosemann and other Senate leaders and House leaders. House Speaker Philip Gunn had sought to eliminate the state income tax entirely, a move that Hosemann and many Senators opposed.
While that issue is likely to come up again during the session, Hosemann largely focused on a tax refund that he supports to return about $270 million in surplus funds. The lieutenant governor said he would prefer a system where all taxpayers are paid back each dollar they paid in taxes dollar-by-dollar until the surplus is gone. Estimates he has heard said the maximum refund would be about $500.
“That money was money in addition to the amount we had already budgeted, and the taxpayers sent in additional money, and I think we’ll send that money back,” Hosemann said.
That proposal too has received pushback from members of the House.
Hosemann also said there would likely be attempts to revive the state’s dormant initiative petition process, though that too comes with disagreement between the legislature’s two chambers.
Despite the potential roadblocks in the House and complications that come from an election year, Hosemann remains confident in his agenda.
“I think they’re all going to get passed, why wouldn’t they?” Hosemann said. “It’s all good legislation.”
Hosemann also addressed the recent decision by the Mississippi Ethics Commission to rule that the state legislature is not a public body, and the House Republican Caucus can meet behind closed doors. Under Hosemann, the Senate Republican Caucus has not held meetings behind closed doors.
“Everything we do here is open, so rather than say what I feel about it look at what we do,” Hosemann said.
Gov. Tates Reeves outlined a number of his priorities for the session in November through his budget recommendation. The office of Speaker Gunn, who announced earlier this year that this will be his last session as speaker, has not responded to requests for an interview on his legislative priorities.