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Surviving Bills This Week Could Finally Make a Difference, Or Not

Last Tuesday was the deadline for House and Senate committees to report general bills and constitutional amendments originating in their own houses. This means last week was a death blow to most proposed legislation. Surviving the deadline, however, are several prospective bills that could change school funding and reduce felony disenfranchisement, among other things. 

From Jim Crow to Jim Crow Lite 

A majority of House members voted last week to approve a plan that cuts into Mississippi’s draconian felony disenfranchisement law, which legislators have kept on the books since segregationists first grabbed crayons and penned the fervidly racist state constitution of 1890. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals is currently deliberating Mississippi’s Jim Crow era Section 241, which up to this point removes voting privileges from people who are found guilty of committing 23 types of felonies. The state’s constitution drafters designed Section 241 to specifically target the voting rights of Black people convicted of felonies by making sure the felonies included “money crimes” commonly committed by impoverished populations. The current rule affects persons convicted of murder, rape, bribery, arson and bigamy, but also targets theft, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery and embezzlement. These crimes included offenses such as writing bad checks, which disproportionately affect impoverished families.  

Under current law, a person who’s been convicted of a felony will never see her voting rights automatically restored, even after she has served her time and paid her debt to society. 


The House voted 96-11 to pass House Bill 1609, which automatically restores suffrage to people convicted of nonviolent disenfranchising felonies after they’ve completed the terms of their sentence. Even if passed, the bill will not completely remove the blight of Jim Crow, which will continue to disenfranchise arson, armed robbery, carjacking, embezzlement, murder, rape, and statutory rape. While limiting anti-democratic rules to violent crimes, Section 241 will remain on the books, which means future legislators could use it to again expand disenfranchisement to any population of their choosing, so long as they have majority support in the House and Senate. 



Bill Impacting Mississippi Midwives Dead 


Last week’s deadline took out a controversial bill seeking to both legitimize and supervise Mississippi’s embattled midwifery industry. Senate Bill 2080 would have codified certain restrictions for midwives practicing in Mississippi, but it left the brunt of rulemaking and the certification process to physicians, who can be largely and frequently hostile to midwives, as a potential health risk (and legitimate competition). 


The midwifery industry must continue to struggle with legitimacy issues in the state. Popular birthing clinics such as Women's Health Associates PLLC and Jackson Healthcare for Women refuse services to patients who insist on midwife delivery over the clinic’s in-house doctors.

“Our average costs for midwife services are between $3,000 and $4,500,” said Chae Pounds, a midwife who serves the Mississippi Gulf Coast territory. “On the higher end, you might say $5,000. We are competing with the medical industry, and they really don’t like us.” 


The law would have created a certification board that midwives claimed did not represent the industry it monitored. Of its eight members, the board contains only four midwives. The remaining half of the seats are reserved for a physician certified in obstetricians and gynecology, a certified pediatrician, an unaffiliated consumer, and a “certified nurse midwife,” whom many midwives consider a plant for the medical industry. Other boards, such as The Mississippi Board of Nursing, are composed almost entirely of licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), and nurse practitioners, just as the 12-member Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure is dominated by medical doctors. 


With the bill dead, however, the midwifery industry must continue to struggle with legitimacy issues in the state. Popular birthing clinics such as Women's Health Associates PLLC and Jackson Healthcare for Women refuse services to patients who insist on midwife delivery over the clinic’s in-house doctors. They and many other clinics also will not provide crucial screening for genetic disorders like Down Syndrome or Sickle cell disease, or amniocentesis tests for lung and organ function, unless the patient pushes her midwife from the picture and adopts a clinic doctor for delivery. 



Medicaid Expanded, with Strings 

 After more than a decade of stalling and deriding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, white Mississippi legislators finally passed a bill from the House that would expand Medicaid. The decision comes on the heels of numerous beleaguered hospitals closing doors and wards due to high uninsured patient bills that are never paid. 


The Mississippi expansion plan comes with serious limitations, however. House Bill 1725 requires individuals to be employed at a job that is not providing health insurance. Individuals who have insurance through employer or private health insurance and who voluntarily disenroll from that coverage for various reasons (or because the job offers only an inconsequential plan with a terrible deductible or impossible terms) would not be eligible for Medicaid expansion coverage for 12 months. Eligible people may also qualify as a full-time student or enrolled in a workforce training program.  


Legislators plan for nonprofits to deliver Medicaid coverage through managed care plans and to also provide workforce training and financial literacy materials, despite Mississippi’s terrible history with nonprofits stealing millions of dollars in federal money. Nonprofit founder Nancy New, a GOP political ally and beloved talking head of Mississippi conservative radio, pleaded guilty to wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering, bribing a public official, and fraud that funneled millions of dollars away from a program intended to help impoverished families and children. Civil suits uncovered court documents and text messages suggesting retired NFL millionaire Brett Favre and former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant conspired with New to blow TANF money on an $8 million university volleyball stadium. 


Critics still say Mississippi’s absence of oversight and its nonexistent paper trail regarding nonprofit contractors still allows criminals like New to steal millions. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests still do not apply to nonprofits contracted with the state to spend federal money, so reporters and voters will not easily see how cash is spent, whether it is TANF or Medicaid expansion funds. 



 A New School Funding Formula to Ignore 

 The House passed HB 1453, which seeks to replace Mississippi’s current Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) K-12 school funding formula.  


Legislators wrote the proposed formula, named INSPIRE, to reflect funding “weights” of individual districts, including education costs, the number of low-income students, the number of students in career-technical education programs, and the percentage of English language learners and special education students. Low-income students get a 30% weight added, while students with a learning disability get a 60% weight added to their district. These, in turn, coax more formula money. 


Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports most districts would see budget increases under the new formula. The imperiled Holmes Consolidated School District, for example, would enjoy a nearly 28% funding increase. Lawmakers predict INSPIRE to increase school funding by $241 million. 


While allegedly distributing cash more equitably between wealthy and low-income districts, the INSPIRE formula costs $2.96 billion to fully fund, compared to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program technique, which costs $2.99 billion, if fully funded. 


INSPIRE’s greatest problem, like MAEP’s, will likely be Mississippi legislators’ strong dislike for fully paying it. Lawmakers have only funded MAEP two times since its passage in the 1990s, and both of those times were during election years (2003 and 2007). Legislators have shorted state schools by more than ***squints disbelievingly at Parent’s Campaign website tracker*** $3.5 billion since 2008. This can’t be right, can it? Like … really?! 


Mississippi ranks near the bottom, nationally, in per pupil school spending, at No. 48. 


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