The Mississippi legislature wasted no time in tackling high-profile issues including the possible elimination of the state income tax, a potential statewide medical marijuana program, a pay raise for the state’s teachers, addressing the issue of fentanyl overdoses in the state, aid for first responders and veterans, a program to boost retention of healthcare professionals and more as the new session began this past Tuesday.

State Representative Nick Bain is particularly excited about a package of bills he’s preparing to address concerns over the rise in overdose deaths related to the highly-potent narcotic fentanyl.

Bain, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary B committee, said they’re looking at a three-pronged approach to tackle the fentanyl crisis which has resulted in deaths across the state due to people unknowingly taking narcotics laced with the drug which can cause overdose deaths in extremely small dosages.

A proposed statute would create the felony crime of drug-induced homicide. Bain said the goal is to create a strong penalty for those who knowingly produce and sell fentanyl-laced drugs which lead to deaths. The statute will be designed to target the dealers and producers and not the individual addicts.

“I don’t want to go after the addicts. I want to go after those exploiting the addicts,” he said.

A bill is also planned to regulate the sale and possession of pill pressing equipment used to make the pills. Bain said in many cases drug dealers and suppliers are taking known prescriptions such as Xanax, crushing the pills, adding fentanyl, and then making new pills for distribution to unknowing drug users. The regulation would limit the sale and possession of drug manufacturing equipment to those such as professional pharmacists with a legitimate need for the equipment and set penalties for illegal possession.

Bain also wants to see an education curriculum rolled out similar to the tobacco education programs done several years ago to help educate the public about the extreme dangers of the drug.

“A lot of people just don’t know little of this it takes to kill you,” he said.

State Representative Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, chairman of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, has a pair of bills he plans to introduce focused on veterans and first responders.

Carpenter said he is introducing a bill that would roll back the period law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics must work to draw their full retirement from the state’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). Current state employees must work 30 years to access their full retirement income. That period was increased a few years ago from the previous number of 25 years.

Carpenter said his bill would decrease the period for full retirement back to 25 years for these first responders. He said the physical dangers and mental stress these public servants face makes it unrealistic to expect them to be able to serve for three decades to obtain their retirement benefits. He said they are waiting on a financial analysis of the plan from PERS but he believes it’s very doable. He said it’s essential to support those who give so much of themselves for their communities.

The representative said he’s also aiming to continue to increase resources and training for the state’s Veterans Service Officers who serve in each county to help connect veterans with needed services.

“We want to get them more training and help support these veterans,” said Carpenter.

Senator Rita Potts Parks said she wants to help encourage healthcare professionals to stay in the state and has introduced a bill to help offset the costs of their education. The legislation would create a three-year payback program providing $3,000 each year for a three year period to payback education costs for new RNs, LPNs, Doctors Assistants and Respiratory Therapists. Up to 300 would be eligible each year on a first come, first served basis.

She said it’s vital to keep these key professionals in the state to boost numbers and fill positions and believes this program will help do that.

“This will help retain them in the state.

State Income Tax

The House passed a bill this week that would phase out the state income tax over a period of approximately six years and reduce the sales tax on groceries from 7 percent to 4 percent, starting this July. The bill would increase several other taxes, including the general sales tax and taxes on alcohol and items such as music, games, and cellphone ring tones delivered electronically, to offset the income tax elimination.

“I’m excited. I believe we have a good plan,” said Bain.

Carpenter said the state is currently running a significant revenue surplus and he credits sound financial management and conservative spending policies for putting the state in what he termed “the best shape in the state’s history”.

He said the House plan would eliminate the income tax on individuals earning up to $40,000 per year or couples earning up to $80,000 beginning July 1 and would also cut in half the cost of car tag beginning July 1. He noted there are provisions to replace the car tag revenue for counties and to make sure municipalities dependent on sales taxes on groceries are made whole as well.

Bain said the driving concept behind eliminating the income tax is to make the state more competitive in recruiting new industry and encouraging economic development against surrounding states which don’t have a state income tax.

Carpenter said the state must stay competitive against surrounding states and he also believes it should be up to people and not the government in how they spend their money.

“We feel like people can spend their money more effectively than the government can,” he said.

Carpenter said he believes the state doesn’t create jobs, but the government has a responsibility to create an environment that encourages investment, and moves such as the income tax plan and teacher pay raise plan are part of that effort.

“We don’t create jobs. We create an environment where people want to come here and invest their money here,” he said.

The Senate has not unveiled its plan on the issue, but Parks said she expects to see the plan released in about two weeks. The Senator said she agrees there’s never been a better time to make the change with the state in such a good financial position. One key difference in the house and senate proposals will be an effort to avoid any tax increases while eliminating the income tax.

“Our goal is not to have any increase in any taxes,” she said.

Parks said she believes eliminating the income tax will help fight the “brain drain” of people moving out of the state. The state’s population decrease again in the most recent census and she said it’s essential the state retains its people to encourage continued growth.

Teacher Pay

The House also approved a bill to increase pay for teachers across the state and the Senate is considering its own proposal.

Under the house plan, teachers would see raises of $4,000 to $6,000 with a focus on increasing pay for new teachers to help recruit and retain quality instructors and address a statewide shortage of educators. The proposed Senate plan would provide an average increase of $4,700 over two years.

Bain said they want to get salaries up closer to the regional and national averages.

“We have the best education system in the country and we’ve got to support our teachers,” he said.

Carpenter said the House’s plan is the largest single pay raise for teachers ever and it’s vital to create an environment where teachers are supported and the profession is attractive to beginning teachers as well as experienced instructors.

Parks is also strongly supportive of the pay raise proposal in the Senate. She said it’s important to retain and recruit teachers to maintain the state’s top-notch education system and teachers deserve strong support.

“Children are our future and teachers are helping create and support that future,” she said.

Medical Marijuana

The Senate approved a bill creating a statewide medical marijuana program this week. The bill, Senate Bill 2095, would allow a person with a prescription to obtain 3.5 grams of marijuana per day. Governor Tate Reeves has expressed concerns about allowing large amounts of marijuana to be sold saying it could lead to broader recreational use.

Parks said she believes there will be a medical marijuana program passed this session. She said a key to the discussion is ensuring it is a true “medical marijuana” plan and not a program that creates any sort of pathway for recreational use of the drug.

Mississippi voters approved a medical marijuana program in a November 2019 statewide vote but the plan hit a roadblock when the state supreme court ruled the state’s initiative process was out of date and therefore the referendum was invalid.

Carpenter said he expects the house to take up the Senate’s plan next week and he believes final legislation will be completed quickly and sent to the governor for his consideration.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Banner Independent Editor

Managing editor of the Daily Corinthian’s sister newspaper, Booneville’s Banner-Independent, Brant Sappington has been a member of the Daily Corinthian family since 2001.

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