JACKSON • Mississippi lawmakers on Thursday went home for good this year, but two defining proposals of the session — medical marijuana and income tax elimination — ultimately fizzled out well before the final gavel fell.
Senate leaders wanted to legalize medical marijuana in case the state's voter-approved pot program is thrown out in court. But the proposal died earlier this week after failing to get traction in the House.
House leaders, meanwhile, called their income tax phase-out plan transformative and pledged it would jolt the economy. But the Senate never gave it a vote, instead advocating more research of tax reform this summer.
Marijuana and taxes weren’t the only high-profile policy proposals that flamed out after often-bitter disagreements between the chambers, which are both controlled by Republicans. Others included privatizing alcohol distribution, overhauling state parks, automatically purging voter rolls, reforming three-strikes sentencing laws and extending postpartum Medicaid coverage.
House Speaker Philip Gunn reminded reporters on Thursday that several of these failed measures will surely come up again for consideration in the 2022 session.
Lawmakers plan to study tax reform this summer
Gunn said his proposal to eliminate state income taxes over 10 years while raising sales taxes to compensate remains his "No. 1 issue." He said House leaders would continue working on their proposal this summer, and "be more vigilant to try to make sure we can get support from the Senate end on this."
“There have been a lot of attempts to throw rocks at it," Gunn said of the proposal, which also calls for cutting the grocery tax in half. "The only objections that we find are not policy related. They’re either political in nature, or they come from those who have a self-serving interest.”
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann repeatedly criticized what he labeled the House's "tax swap" in recent weeks — including in a final legislative news conference Thursday. He said he wants "to see a reduction" in taxes overall, not trading a decrease in income taxes for an uptick in sales taxes.
But Hosemann pledged senators would nevertheless study tax reform this summer. He suggested both chambers could hammer out a compromise tax overhaul bill before the 2022 session.
House said marijuana 'backstop' not necessary
As for medical marijuana, Gunn said there were simply not enough votes in the House to approve the Senate-sponsored program. But he acknowledged lawmakers "will be forced" to tackle the issue if the Mississippi Supreme Court invalidates Initiative 65.
Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler is challenging the legality of the initiative process, and the case is set for oral arguments this month before the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Gunn said voters made a "strong statement" by overwhelmingly supporting medical marijuana in November. If Initiative 65 is invalidated, he said, lawmakers would need to return next year and pass a replacement program.
Hosemann was frustrated the House killed the proposal, which senators stayed up until 1 a.m. earlier this session ramming through.
"I don't understand why you wouldn't want a backstop if the Supreme Court kicks out the (initiative)," he said, adding lawmakers must consider a replacement marijuana legislation next year if Initiative 65 is overturned.
Other bills Senate, House couldn't agree on
Here are six other high-profile measures that died this session:
Privatizing liquor distribution. The House wanted to privatize the state-run liquor distribution system. Liquor stores faced delays receiving orders as demand surged during the pandemic, and officials say the state's underfunded and undersized liquor warehouse in Gluckstadt is to blame.
But Hosemann and many other senators were never interested in privatization. Liquor distribution brings in significant tax revenues for the state, and Senate leaders were worried about losing that stream of income.
Park repairs and conservation fund. The Mississippi parks system is in disarray, but the Senate and House couldn't agree on a solution. The Senate proposed studying privatization of some parks and giving others away to local governments. The House opposed the idea, saying it was best to find a dedicated funding stream from state lottery money for the fixes. Neither idea made it far in the opposing chamber.
A third House idea, to create a $20 million conservation fund to pay for outdoors projects, also ultimately failed after the two chambers failed to reach a compromise deal.
Three-strikes reform. Both chambers talked about the need for criminal justice reform throughout the session. But of the two most impactful bills, only one, dealing with parole reform, passed and now heads to Gov. Tate Reeves.
A second bill that would have retroactively reined in Mississippi's habitual offender laws, also known as three-strike laws, failed in the session's final hours. It would have ensured a nonviolent third felony, such as a drug offense, no longer results in someone going to prison for life. The proposal died after House and Senate negotiators couldn't reach a deal on the time frame certain habitual offenders should be eligible for parole.
Medicaid coverage for women. Senate leaders touted a plan to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage to a year, up from two months. The provision added to a larger Medicaid package was meant to address Mississippi's highest-in-the-nation infant mortality rate, and also reduce its maternal mortality rate. But the House ultimately forced the provision's removal.
Voter roll purge. The Senate advanced a proposal to automatically purge voters from the rolls if they did not vote for a certain amount of time or respond to a postcard from elections officials. Hosemann and other Republicans said it was a necessary tool to fix the state's outdated rolls. But Democratic critics said the legislation was all about voter suppression. The bill died after reaching the House.
Hosemann's business incentives. Hosemann and other Senate leaders said a top priority this session was passing streamlined business incentives. The idea behind the Mississippi Flexible Tax Incentive Act, or MFLEX, was to streamline the process of providing perks for companies that choose to move to Mississippi or expand their operations. The Senate passed it unanimously. But the House wasn't as interested, and the proposal died in negotiations between chambers. Hosemann said passing MFLEX is "job No. 1" for next year's session.