Legislative Wrap-up 2012
by Rev. Rims Barber, Mississippi Human Services CoalitionMay 6, 2012
When the 2012 Legislative Session began, we were faced with an agenda crafted nationally by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (A.L.E.C.) and the TEA party.
Progressive and caring people came together to provide a balance to that kind of initiative. The surprising result was that good prevailed over evil in many instances. A number of those very bad ideas died, and did not become law in our state.
Religious leaders, business organizations and law officials came out and opposed the copying of Alabama’s law to make criminals of immigrants. This broad-based support for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance carried the day and defeated the anti-immigrant legislation.
A plan to raise interest rates on small loans from 36% to 99% failed after a coalition of good citizens objected. The Mississippi Center for Justice, backed by the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference spearheaded this successful effort.
Several attempts were made to regulate persons who receive “public benefits” but they all failed. They included such things as checking for citizenship status, drug testing and for requiring 20 hours of free labor of all recipients (which would have included people such as public retirees and residents of nursing homes).
“Personhood” was embedded in bills twice (in obvious attempts to thumb the nose of the voters last November). Both bills died after much volatile debate.
Privatizing public schools, as part of the Charter School movement, failed after two tries. But the Republican leadership promises that it will be back after an effort to convince the public.
An attempt to privatize Child Support in the Department of Human Services was slipped into the conference report that would extend the life of D.H.S., but it was sent back to die in conference. Another bill did extend the repealer of D.H.S. until 2015. A bill to move child care licensing out of the Health Department into D.H.S. was killed in committee.
Bills to resurrect the old Sovereignty Commission died quietly in committee, although the Tea Party had asked for this measure.
Some bad ideas survived, but got worked over in the legislative process so that they were watered down:
There was a big push to restrict the ability of the Attorney General to act on behalf of the state (as he did in the tobacco law suit). After vigorous debate, and much negotiation, the limitations have been reduced. However, it is not clear that Democrat Jim Hood will be able to fight for the rights of citizens without getting approval from his Republican counterparts.
Public Employees were the target of several bills, aimed at making it easier to fire them for political reasons. This idea died, but the Legislature did reduce their seniority rights.
Some good ideas actually made it through the process and will become law:
Parents of Special Education children will be able to record I.E.P. meetings so that an accurate record can be kept and their rights won’t get trampled (Thanks to Parents United). Children with Dyslexia will be able to get the services they need to take advantage of a full educational opportunity. Blind students will be better able to access Braille materials so that their opportunities will not be limited.
Under pressure from lawsuits, The Southern Poverty Law Center, and ACLU, the state will remove children from the Walnut Grove prison. There will be a new agency to set standards to protect the rights of juveniles in detention facilities. Young people will be able to access Drug Courts, rather than be sent off to prisons.
Small improvements in the handling of domestic violence cases will become law. Vulnerable adults will be protected from mental abuse (as well as physical abuse). Common Cause worked hard for open meetings and reasonably priced public records but it was a difficult year for much progress. Annual reports of agencies will be available online.
The development of a State Health Care Insurance Exchange, in compliance with the national health care reform law, will be able to move forward with help from a bill to enable the board of the High Risk Pool to come out from domination by insurance companies.
The major loss of the 2012 Session was the passage of the bill to implement the Voter identification system. This will make it difficult for many citizens to keep their right to vote. They will now need to have a current Drivers License (or some other government document with a photo every time they go to vote). Protests against this are being organized, asking for the U.S. Justice Department to reject this law. It is likely to end up in Court, and take some time to become effective. We doubt that Photo I.D.s will be required for this November’s election. Restricting voter registration and voter assistance were both the goals of bills that died in a Senate committee.
The debate over Workers Compensation pitted workers against employers and their insurance companies. The companies won, and it will be harder for injured workers to claim compensation.
In the last days of the Session, the Legislature voted to re-district itself, using the 2010 Census. This, too, will probably end up in Court with accusations of this as an attempt to reduce the influence of the Black Vote.