In the new year, and on the eve of the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection at the nation’s capitol, the Mississippi State Capitol is abuzz with activity.
“We’ve got a lot of federal dollars that must be spent and appropriated to follow federal rules and regulations. We’re in for a hopefully great session to get a lot of things done because we have more resources to get things done,” says District 24 Senator David Jordan on January 4, the inaugural day of the 2022 MS Legislative session.
Representative Zakiya Summers (District 68) says, “Walking through the State House on the first day is kind of like the first day of school. Everybody is excited. We’re hugging, we’re shaking hands, and everybody is so happy to see each other. But we also know that we’re going to have a lot ahead of us as we go through the session.”
With this influx of federal dollars comes an even greater inflow of national and state issues that this year’s legislature must sort out. Voting rights and Critical Race Theory have been at the forefront of various debates across the nation. Governor Tate Reeves named “Fighting Back Against Critical Race Theory” as one of his top priorities in his Fiscal Year 2023 Executive Budget Recommendation.
In his recommendation, he suggests that the legislature pass bills that will prevent CRT from being taught in schools, noting “Critical Race Theory does not promote critical thinking. Instead, it’s a push from radical leftists to teach our children a lie. That this country is fundamentally racist. It is destructive to young children and runs contrary to basic history.” Recently, even the MS State Auditor, Shad White, spoke out about banning books from state libraries that suggest or teach CRT. Yet, CRT is not being taught in Mississippi’s K-12 schools.
Rep. Summers seems to think the debate, and any subsequent legislation that comes forth, is divisive. “There’s a surplus of funds that have come into the state. We don’t need anything that divides us.” She does believe that a bill will likely be introduced, and it will likely pass.
“I don’t think we should be silent on this issue. I received an email where MDE is already looking at some proposed changes on their social studies curriculum and Wednesday, January 5 was actually the deadline to request a public hearing on these changes and some of these changes do reflect taking out some of those teachings that are centered on Black and Brown people’s history.”
Redistricting will be another massive undertaking for the state legislature, and it is one of the first that will be presented this session as a bill has already dropped in the Senate.
Mississippi’s population has dwindled over the last 10 years. The Mississippi NAACP stated in a November 2021 letter to the Mississippi Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee that this redistricting effort could implement “structural challenges that could disproportionately affect marginalized communities.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s statistical findings illustrate that Mississippi’s population has dwindled from 2,967,297 to 2,945,965 which is a 21,332, or 0.2%, population decrease. This made Mississippi one of three states to lose population. Black people represent 37.8%, white people represent 59.1%, and Hispanic people represent 3.4% of the population which isn’t much of a decrease from 10 years prior.
The proposed redistricting maps contain changes to each congressional district but District 2 would see the most changes. Congressman Bennie Thompson, who represents District 2 on the national level, will lose approximately 65,000 people in this proposal. District 2 represents a large number of Black voters.
However, the new map would add parts of Hinds County and four additional counties in the southwest corner of the state into District 2. This effort may make it much more difficult for the incumbent Congressman to reach his new constituents which, in turn, may ultimately spell disaster for Black representation in Mississippi at the national level.
Rep. Summers encourages voters to reach out to their senators and representatives. “I encourage all constituents to make contact with their legislators whether they’re on the redistricting committee or not. Because this map could come to the floor, and we will be forced to vote on it. And people need to know how their legislators are going to vote on it if it’s presented as is. We do have an opportunity to make changes and to get with the chairman of the committee which is Representative Jim Beckett (R-Dist. 23) to see if he will be willing to incorporate those changes.”
Additionally, income tax is a matter that will be discussed, debated, and legislated this session. Speaker of the House, Rep. Philip Gunn, introduced HB1439, the Mississippi Tax Freedom Act of 2021, and it passed in the House last session. A bill similar to that one is likely to be presented this year.
A recent report from One Voice Mississippi, entitled “Who Pays, Mississippi? An Overview of State Tax Policy and Racial Equity Impacts”, notes, “The state’s tax system is playing an active role in worsening these disparities. Black and Hispanic families face the highest effective tax rates in the state while also having among the lowest average incomes. In the context of Mississippi’s overall regressive tax system, which asks the least of the state’s most affluent residents, these higher tax rates on communities of color are stripping them of both income and wealth, contributing to the state’s ongoing struggle with severe economic inequality.”
The organization also alluded to the fact that removal of state income tax will be just as bad, if not worse, for people of color in the state. One Voice Policy Analyst, Kyra Roby, reported on how if HB1439 would’ve become a law, it would’ve “adversely affect(ed) working families and communities of color by transferring the tax burden via an increase in sales tax.”
Rep. De’Keither Stamps says, “When you remove an amount from the state coffers, but you don’t articulate what’s going to replace those resources, (then) you don’t have to argue about cutting programs if you cut the resources for the programs. The $2 billion that comes into the state coffers from state income tax funds those programs.”
Nonetheless, Rep. Stamps isn’t wholeheartedly opposed to the idea. He believes that the idea should be tested and targeted to certain groups, starting with retired military personnel, to see if it will work across the board. “The retired military community doesn’t come back to Mississippi and one of the reasons is because of personal income tax.”
The session sees a lot of repeat issues circling back around. One of those issues is Medicaid expansion. “It will surely require massive organizing and campaigning to get Medicaid expansion approved in Mississippi,” stated Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor, Dr. Ivory Phillips, in his very recent article, “Voting rights, state income tax cuts, and Medicaid expansion: Three issues for Mississippians in 2022.”
He also said that “petition drives, lobbying, and even partisan campaigning will have to take place. It is a matter that should be of concern for all citizens, not just those who would be covered by the expansion. Medical care is a human right, and in this case, one that is affordable based upon the resources of the state. Furthermore, those who would benefit from the expansion are our sisters, brothers, and neighbors.”
Other hot button issues are medical marijuana, teacher pay raises, equal pay for women, and how the American Rescue Plan funds will be spent.
How will the American Rescue Funds be spent? Rep. Stamps says, “It’s about dividing the pie. I know we have a lot of social justice and other issues to deal with but, in the next 90 days, there are billions of dollars on the table in the middle of this pie. Everybody’s focus right now should be on dividing the pie and staying healthy so that they can vote.”
One way to spend some of that money, from Rep. Stamps’ point of view, is to “take a large portion of the money and put it into the state’s revolving loan fund program to be divided up for water and sewer and divide that up by customer base so each utility across the state could apply through a program that’s already existing.”
Then, there’s the issue of medical marijuana which was voted on by voting-age citizens in the November 2020 election. Initiative 65 established a constitutional amendment for the use of medical marijuana in Mississippi. However, in May 2021, the initiative was invalidated by the Mississippi Supreme Court in a case brought forth by Mary Hawkins Butler, the mayor of Madison, MS.
The basis of Butler’s lawsuit indicated that “there was an error in the (MS) Constitution where the legislature had not corrected the number of congressional districts,” explains Rep. Summers. Mississippi lost a congressional district in the 2000 Census; it has four instead of five. Additionally, the state’s highest court alluded to problems with the language within how the initiative process would start as the cause for them striking the measure down.
This is also the basis of the ballot initiative process which tackles voting rights in Mississippi. “That’s a very important topic for me because, as a voting rights advocate, I think that the people should have the opportunity to be able to impact policy,” says Rep. Summers.
In the case of medical marijuana, Rep. Summer says that there is a bill being developed that she believes is more comprehensive and does more than what Initiative 65 originally set forth to do. “The Senate has a bill drafted. They sent it to the governor to get his ok, because in the process, you want to make sure that legislative leadership is amenable to what you’re trying to get passed so that you don’t have any issues on the tail end.”
However, Governor Reeves stated that he would veto the bill if it was passed and sent to him in its current form because he did not like the amount of marijuana that it allows individuals to receive which would total 3.5 grams.
Lee Yancy, a Republican state representative from Rankin County, is the chairman of the Drug Policy Committee. Rep. Summers states, “When I spoke with the chairman of the Drug Policy Committee on the House side, he said that in his research, we are kind of right in the middle. Oklahoma allows 8 (grams). California allows a lot (28.5 grams). We’re on the more conservative side. He felt that members have done all they can to craft a program that will be fitting for the state of Mississippi.”
Although the legislature may have enough votes to pass medical marijuana legislation even if Governor Reeves vetoes the bill, the future of medical marijuana, voting rights, and vital aspects to quality of life in the state of Mississippi hang in the balance during this legislative session.
Will Black legislators be able to have a strong enough presence and voice to pass legislation that prevents laws that hinder voting rights or promote gerrymandering in a state that has a storied past with voter suppression especially against Black and Brown citizens? And will they be able to band together to impede legislation that strips students’ rights to learn the entire history of the United States and Mississippi as it relates to race and racism? What will Black legislators be able to achieve for the quality of life of African Americans in Mississippi?
Representative Summer expresses, “Ultimately, we can vote yes or we can vote no. We’re dealing with a super majority of Republican legislators. Essentially, they don’t need our votes to be able to pass what they want to pass, but that doesn’t mean that we give up the fight.”
For more of the Jackson Advocate’s interviews with state legislators, check out our podcast, Volume, on Spotify.