Marijuana tops ’22 legislative session
Medical marijuana legislation, redistricting and spending $1.8 billion in federal relief monies coming to the state top the agenda as the Mississippi Legislature convenes next week.
“I think what you’ll see happen in the state Senate is the first week of the session, we will bring out a medical marijuana bill and pass it and send it to the House,” said Republican state Sen. J. Walter Michel, whose district includes parts of Madison and Hinds counties.
Michel said he thought a special session would have been called before the end of the year on the medical marijuana issue after the state Supreme Court in May overturned a medical marijuana Initiative 65 approved by voters in the 2020 general election.
The high court sided with Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler, who challenged the process by which the measure was placed on ballots and overturned Initiative 65 approved by 58% of the overall vote in the 2020 general election according to certified election results.
“We sure thought we were going to be in special session in either October or November,” Michel said. “But, the only way we can go into a special session is to be called into session by the governor, and that call never happened.”
Gov. Tate Reeves has said he did not call a special session on the issue because he believes the amount of marijuana that can be prescribed under the proposed legislation is too high.
Michel said he agrees with Reeves on the amount of marijuana allowed under initiative 65 and draft legislation developed in anticipation of a special session. Michel said the amount of marijuana allowed under both measures would be equivalent to a recreational marijuana program.
“Many people I’ve talked to in Madison County since that vote did not realize that that bill was more of a recreational marijuana bill disguised as a medical marijuana bill,” Michel said. “When I told a lot of people that Dr. Dobbs, our state health officer, told us that in that bill, the amount of the doses would allow around 10 medical marijuana cigarettes a day, then that was way over what many people felt was reasonable.”
Michel said the Senate had passed a medical marijuana bill twice in the last session, but the measure failed to get passed by the House.
“We had a backup bill in case the Supreme Court (overturned Initiative 65),” Michel said. “What we’ll have on that medical marijuana bill now will be a much-improved bill over what was passed in Initiative 65.”
Democrat state Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr. of Canton said he too believes state medical marijuana program legislation will be among the most important issues in the upcoming legislative session. He supports a sensible medical marijuana program as well.
Blackmon said another issue he expects to take precedent this session is redistricting congressional and state legislative districts to align with population shifts reflected in the 2020 U.S. Census.
“(Redistricting) is the most selfish enterprise that the Legislature has to tackle at least once every 10 years in that every single member has an interest,” Blackmon said. “Everyone has some issues come up that you are certainly interested in because of your personal thoughts and feelings about it because the region that you represent, the locale that you represent or party affiliation. Redistricting touches every member of the Legislature, so everybody has an interest in it.”
Therefore, Blackmon said, members often look first at their own districts.
“Then they begin to look around at the state (with a goal of), it’s difficult to accept this, but, ‘How do we stay in power?’” Blackmon said. “How do we gain power within the Legislature through redistricting?”
Blackmon said the redistricting process could become contentious.
“I have not felt at this time that that’s going to be that contentious more than it normally is,” Blackmon said. “But things can play out as the session goes along the way.”
Blackmon said he would pay attention to the redistricting process.
Rep. Jill Ford’s top
Republican Rep. Jill Ford of Madison said she has a few pieces of legislation she is excited about in the upcoming session.
“One, in particular, is the ‘Seizure Safe Schools Act,’” Ford said. “Since one in 10 people will have a seizure at some point in their lives, it is vital for people, especially educators, to be able to know how to recognize and respond to different types of seizures.”
Ford said she plans to introduce a bill in the upcoming session to address the issue.
“Ultimately, the bill that I will be introducing in the upcoming session is about saving lives for those who may experience life-threatening, prolonged seizures in school settings, especially due to new rescue medications now available,” Ford said.
Twelve states have passed legislation on seizures at school in the past two to three years, Ford said.
“I’m excited and hopeful that we will make this a reality for Mississippi students,” Ford said.
Ford said she also plans to introduce legislation to hold drug dealers accountable.
“A tidal wave of illicit narcotics are entering the United States through Biden’s open-border policy,” Ford said. “We are unfortunately finding them being trafficked right here in Mississippi. I am tired of being told that another child has died of a laced and lethal drug overdose. My bill proposes to hold any person 18 years of age or older that unlawfully sells, barters, transfers, manufactures, distributes or dispenses any substance, or a mixture of any substances that cause the death of another person, to be guilty of manslaughter.”
Ford said she is most proud of legislation she is proposing that will create a Law Enforcement Supplemental Pay Program. The program will provide extra compensation of $2,000 per year for full-time certified law enforcement officers who have completed five or more years of service.
“It is time for those who devote his or her life to enforcing the law to be recognized and appreciated by our state,” Ford said.
How to spend $1.8 billion
Michel, who serves on the seven-person appropriations subcommittee to make recommendations on spending $1.8 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to the Mississippi Legislature, said he is excited about the prospect of best using those funds.
“We’ve had five meetings,” Michel said of the subcommittee.
Michel said the subcommittee has heard from more than 50 agencies and organizations, including the Unversity of Mississippi Medical Center, the Mississippi Municipal League, the State Department of Finance and rural water associations, about how they would like to spend the money.
“We’ve had way, way, way more than $1.8 billion in requests,” Michel said. “It is closer to $8 billion. So that’s going to be the tough part. … The chairman of the committee has told me to be prepared the first day of the session, that we will be meeting every day to try to pare down our suggestions and work up a budget of how we think we should spend the $1.8 billion.”
Blackmon said he, too, is interested in how best to spend the ARPA funds.
“The first thing people think about all the relief money, of course, is infrastructure, and infrastructure is in the eye of the beholder,” Blackmon said. “I think of it being more than highways and bridges.”
Blackmon acknowledged that Mississippi needs to address problems with roads and bridges. However, he believes making high-speed internet available to everyone is an essential infrastructure, too.
“Take one of the more prosperous counties in the state, which is Madison County, and you go to the northern part of the county where we know there is not complete access to fiber-optic to the internet because of lack of having fiber optic lines in place,” Blackmon said. “Obviously, that affects the quality of education because everybody now relies on access.”
Blackmon said that is just one example of how the ARPA funds could be used.
“Our public hospitals have been neglected for a long time because of the diminished revenue due to our failure to expand Medicaid,” Blackmon said. “That needs shoring up. The university hospital needs to be addressed if we can within that framework of those funds that will become available.”
State income tax
Other issues the legislators said they believe will be priorities in the upcoming session include a plan to eliminate the state income tax as other states in the Southeast, including Florida and Georgia, have done.
“The hope would be that would increase the attractiveness of the state for some of the high-end businesses and industries,” Blackmon said of the plan to eliminate the state income tax. “From a personal standpoint, I would like to take a serious look at that.”
However, Blackmon said he is concerned about the possibility the issue could become a tax swap, eliminating the income tax and raising sales taxes, which he said he believes would affect lower-income people.
Michel agrees, saying a House bill was sent to the Senate late in the last session, and it did not pass because it amounted to a tax swap trading income tax for sales tax.
“I imagine what you’ll see happen is the House will put together another plan, another bill, and send us another bill,” Michel said. “I think it will be gradual reductions in income taxes and less increases in sales taxes because that was where we got a big rub, and a lot of complaints were due to an extra 2-and-a-half percent sales tax that would be added to just about everything you buy.”
Michel is chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee and is interested in supporting legislation to include telemedicine in insurance policies.
“Telemedicine was very important during the Coronavirus,” Michel said, adding telemedicine saves resources and frees up doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. “Things can be done over the internet or through a cell phone. The insurance commissioner, Mr. Mike Chaney, is very much in favor of telemedicine.”
Blackmon said he would like to see legislation introduced to hold election executive committee members accountable to head off future problems, such as the ones experienced in Canton’s 2021 municipal elections.
“I have already requested legislation to be drafted to deal with some of those problems,” Blackmon said. “We had a failure in Canton of the Democratic Executive Committee. We found that a few members could simply choose not to do anything and throw the whole system in chaos simply by saying, ‘We’re just not going to do our job.’ And it turns out that when they decide to do so, there really isn’t a good place to go to make up for their failure to perform.”
The process in Canton wound up in litigation with three aldermen who lost primary reelection bids and two mayoral candidates in the general election over the process by which Democratic candidates were placed on ballots.
“We have to address that,” Blackmon said. “We can address it in the legislative process, and I want to try and do that.”