By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Mississippi legislators expect to handle several big issues during their four-month session that begins at noon on Tuesday.
They’ll consider charter schools, to possibly allow more flexibility in academic offerings.
They could debate changes to the Public Employees Retirement System, a politically sensitive topic that affects tens of thousands of people.
They still need to handle legislative redistricting.
Many Republicans want to limit fees for private lawyers who do contract work for the Democratic attorney general.
And, some want to take another shot at immigration, an issue important to Republican Gov.-elect Phil Bryant.
Republicans already control the Senate, and they’re taking over the House majority for the first time since Reconstruction.
“It will be interesting, with the new House dynamic in place, to see how we can get some conservative issues at least debated and not assume they’re going to immediately die in committee because they have a different philosophy than we do,” said Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall.
He cited immigration, lawyers’ fees and charter schools as three previously stalled issues that could gain momentum with Republicans leading both chambers.
An immigration bill that died in 2011 would have allowed law officers to check during traffic stops whether people are in the country legally. Opponents said it could put additional, unfunded requirements on state troopers and sheriff’s deputies, and that it could open cities and counties to lawsuits. Bryant, who was backed by many tea party voters, said Mississippi needs to ensure that people from other countries have proper documentation to live and work in the United States.
Private lawyer fess has been a top issue for some Republicans for years. Attorney General Jim Hood is the only Democrat in statewide office in Mississippi, and Republicans criticize him for hiring private lawyers to handle lawsuits for the state. Hood has said the lawyers are putting their own financial resources at stake in cases that could pay millions to the state. Critics say the lawyers often collect millions, and many give campaign contributions to Hood. Some lawmakers propose what they call a “sunshine act” to require more disclosure about the contracts, and to limit how much they could collect if a lawsuit is successful.
Bryant has said for years that Mississippi should allow the widespread establishment of charter schools. They’re public schools but can set different operating hours or can try different academic approaches. Bryant often cites the KIPP Delta Public Schools in eastern Arkansas, which have longer school days than most schools and conduct classes two Saturdays a month.
Republican Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton, who’s expected to become speaker of the House, said he favors changes to allow more competition in education, whether through charter schools or vouchers.
“Charter schools are just one form of competition and I think everyone would agree we should look at that,” Gunn said.
Many legislators say education funding is the most important agenda item in the 2012.
“That’s the big, big picture so that our struggling school systems, especially those in the Delta and some of the poor districts, are not negatively impacted,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee released a proposal that includes neither an increase nor a decrease in funding for elementary and secondary schools for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Departing Gov. Haley Barbour said politicians’ commitment to education shouldn’t be based on how much public money they spend. He said people should instead look for the effectiveness of policy decisions.
“The results we’re getting today are no better than they were 30 years ago if you compare us nationally,” Barbour said. “Our scores that we’re getting are higher than they were 30 years ago, but the national scores are higher, too, though neither one of them are very much higher. We’ve got to think about different ways to get done what we all want done.”
Leaders from both parties say writing an overall state budget will be challenging because money is tight, as it has been the past several years because of the lethargic economy.
Redistricting carries over as unfinished business. Legislators are required to update the boundaries of their own districts each decade after the Census reveals how population has shifted. During the 2011 session, each chamber approved its own plan, but talks stalled when House and Senate leaders sparred over how to treat each other’s proposed maps.
Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said legislators should stick to the tradition of each chamber drawing its own map and rubber-stamping the map from the opposite chamber. Bryant, as lieutenant governor, said the Republican-controlled Senate should have some say in the House map drawn by the Democratic-controlled House. The 2011 session ended with redistricting in limbo.
Now, Republicans will control both chambers and some GOP House members, including Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian, predict redistricting will be finished this session, with new maps that follow the Justice Department mandate to maintain minority voting strength.
“It should be easier simply with the fact that we’ve just gone through an election,” Snowden said. “Everybody in that room has been elected in their current district.”
The Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System manages pension funds for 80,000 state and local government retirees and 167,000 active employees. Many say they oppose changes to PERS because they fear losing money.
A study commission appointed by Barbour recommended several changes to bolster PERS’ finances, including a three-year freeze on the cost-of-living adjustment each of the system’s retirees receives.
The COLA is typically referred to as a “13th check” because many retirees take it as a lump payment at the end of each calendar year. However, they have the option to receive the COLA each month.
Now, the system’s retirees automatically receive a 3 percent annual increase as the COLA. Barbour said the actual cost of living has increased by less than 3 percent for each of the past few years, so PERS beneficiaries were overpaid during that time.
Barbour said a three-year halt to the increases would save the system money; people would still receive the previous amount of COLA, just not an increase. The study group proposes that for upcoming retirees, the COLA be withheld for the first three years after they leave government service.
“I don’t think that’s something the Legislature’s going to hang its hat on,” Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said of the recommendation to change the COLA.
Many lawmakers will present issues that are of particular interest to the regions they represent.
Those from south Mississippi, particularly along the coast, say the insurance market needs to be stabilized to help in the continuing recovery from Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.
“All of us in south Mississippi are interested in insurance rates,” said Sen.-elect Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune.
Simmons said an issue of particular importance in the Delta is the reopening of the Great River Road state park in Rosedale, which has been closed since the Mississippi River flooded several months ago.