Columnist Sid Salter looks at the issues and politics likely to dominate the Mississippi Legislature in 2024.
Democrat Brandon Presley’s failed populist challenge of incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves – built on promises to expand Medicaid, cut or eliminate the sales tax on food, and heal racial division driven by decades of economic disparities – proved that at least for now, Mississippi’s political status quo remains just that.
Republicans hold super majorities in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature and all eight statewide offices. The GOP holds five of the state’s six seats in Congress. Mississippi’s political structure remains rigidly conservative, and the 1890 Constitution still vests the lion’s share of political power in the hands of the Legislature.
Most of the promises Presley made in the best showing a Democratic gubernatorial candidate has made since 1999 were dependent on legislative support from the GOP’s legislative majority that Presley never really had.
Yet the margin of Reeves’s win showed some cracks in the Republican wall. Just as the GOP nationally is split between merely conservative and those who are dogmatically so, there have been internal challenges in the last decade or so in Mississippi from the same forces in GOP primaries.
Whether charismatic figures like former state Sen. Chris McDaniel taking on Republican incumbents as “not conservative enough” or less flamboyant figures operating under the “Freedom Caucus” banner in legislative races, fragmentation has been a threat to the dominant Mississippi Republican Party that former Gov. Haley Barbour led some 25 years ago.
In 2023, McDaniel received his third statewide rejection from the voters. Ten of 11 “Freedom Caucus” backed legislative candidates were defeated.
What does that mean? For starters, pure unadulterated Medicaid expansion is not likely to sprout wings in Mississippi and fly in 2024. But between Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s state Senate and the Mississippi House led by new Speaker Jason White, there is an appetite to listen to innovation that can stabilize the state’s hospitals and draw down more federal dollars to support them.
Both Hosemann and White have expressed genuine frustration with the fact that working Mississippians – in most cases two-job families – find themselves without healthcare coverage. Based on the legislative leadership, healthcare solutions aimed at the working poor would seem to be capable of getting traction.
Presley’s grocery tax cut is also likely DOA in the Legislature in 2024, but local governments have pretty steadily opposed that strategy for three decades. But White said last month that there is support for additional tax cuts, more likely the state’s income tax.
The most politically thorny issue facing White, Hosemann, and their legislative colleagues is the issue of Mississippi’s Public Employees Retirement System.
PERS is expected to ask lawmakers for a large direct cash infusion and present the Legislature with a plan to stabilize the system that will include employee contribution hikes. But no aspect of stabilizing PERS will draw more fire than making changes to the so-called “13th check” cost of living payment.
The “13th check” for most retirees is taken as a lump sum, which makes it a cash flow nightmare for the PERS system. But lawmakers generally avoid long debates about PERS on any level. Lawmakers simply don’t want the increased scrutiny that any discussion of PERS reform will have on the Legislature’s enhanced retirement benefits.
Since 1989, Mississippi’s 174 legislators and the lieutenant governor have enjoyed a preferential state retirement system that is 1.5 times more lucrative than that provided for “regular” state employees like schoolteachers or highway workers.
The special legislative system – called the Supplemental Legislative Retirement Plan (SLRP) – allows legislators to pay into the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) at a rate 50 percent higher than for regular employees. At the same time, the state contributes to the SLRP at a rate 50 percent higher for legislators than it does for regular state employees. “Regular” state employees are only members of PERS while legislators are members of both PERS and SLRP.
But this year, like it or not, lawmakers will have to discuss PERS as the system and outside detractors of the system search for a solution.
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