Prison reform, abortion among new laws
Wednesday, July 2, 2014 1:00 PM
A host of new laws took effect in the state on Tuesday, affecting everything from teacher pay to abortion.
State Sen. Will Longwitz, a Republican of Madison, said the legislative session was very productive and he was happy significant pieces of legislation were signed into law.
"As far as the impact of the ones that went into effect, public safety, education and protecting life are probably the most significant ones," he said.
One of the hottest debates last session centered around teacher pay, with the subject spurring demonstrations and protests at the Capitol.
The new law gives teachers a $1,500 raise and another $1,000 on July 1, 2015. For 2016-2017, merit pay takes effect in high-performing academic districts.
"One of the best parts of the new teacher pay law is that it will get new teachers' attention," Longwitz said. "New professionals going into the field will consider coming to Mississippi and college students will now consider education as a career choice."
He added, "One of the best ways to improve the outcomes for students is to put qualified, responsible people in the classroom."
Another big topic during the session was prison reform, as seen in House Bill 535. This drew concern from some law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges.
The bill allows for alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders while imposing stricter penalties on violent offenders. Violent offenders must serve a minimum 50 percent of the imposed sentence under the new law.
"That was a big bill and law enforcement, judges, prosecutors all had input on it," Longwitz said. "It has worked well in other places to control the skyrocketing cost of prisons."
The bill is expected to save taxpayers $266 million in prison costs over the next decade.
Longwitz added, "If you can send somebody with a drug problem to drug court instead of to Parchman [Penitentiary] to become a professional criminal, you've saved a life and saved money."
Among other laws enacted was House Bill 48, which requires student athletes to fully recover from concussions before participating again. It requires public and private schools to evaluate players during practice and competitions to determine if they have sustained a concussion after a collision or shake-up.
Madison Central High School Athletic Director Bobby Hall said it's a good law because it raises awareness throughout the entire state about the dangers of concussions in sports.
"I'm grateful for the law being passed, but we were doing that anyway," he said. "We actually educate our student athletes on concussions. We're a little more blessed at our place in that we have team doctors and trainers."
He said he didn't know of any coaches in the state that would play kids who had concussions, and if so, he said they weren't a real coach to begin with. He said this helps with student athletes who sometimes might want to play injured, not fully understanding the ramifications.
Other major laws enacted include:
House Bill 1400 - Bans abortion after 20 weeks unless death or permanent injury due to pregnancy is revealed.
House Bill 928 - Caps the amount of costs associated with public records requests and requires the lowest-level employee of a government agency to fulfill the request.
Senate Bill 2681 - Added "In God We Trust" to the state seal and said the government can't burden an individual's right to practice his/her religious beliefs. The state became the 19th in the country to pass some sort of Religious Freedom Restoration Act.