3/9/20 - 3/17/20 Weekly Sessions Recap & COVID-19 Update
During the 10th week of session, the House met as a whole to discuss general bills that made it out of committee and onto the calendar. Thursday, March 12 was the deadline for representatives to discuss these general bills. Any bills not discussed in session by this deadline died on the calendar. The bills listed below are just some of the many bills that were passed by the House this week.
One greatly debated item in the House was House Concurrent Resolution 39. The concurrent resolution would provide an alternative to Initiative 65 on the ballot in November. Initiative 65 would amend the Constitution to allow Mississippians with a debilitating medical condition to obtain a medical marijuana prescription. Proponents of HC 39 claimed that the language in Initiative 65 was misleading and could potentially lead to a recreational marijuana environment in the state. Opponents of HC 39 argued that the resolution was a tactic to make it more difficult for Initiative 65 to pass in November. HC 39 passed with a vote of 72-49.
Another concurrent resolution that would propose an amendment to the Constitution was House Concurrent Resolution 47. Currently, if no gubernatorial candidate receives a majority of votes, the election is decided by the House of Representatives. The proposed amendment would remove the electoral requirement for governor and allow the governor to be elected by a majority. If no candidate receives a majority, then a runoff election would be held. HC 47 passed with a bipartisan vote of 114-2 and has been sent to the Senate.
Two items passed this week that would bring changes to the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. House Bill 870 would require that appointments to the IHL Board be made by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House. Currently, the governor has the sole power to appoint all twelve members of the board with Senate confirmation. HB 870 passed by a vote of 78-41. House Concurrent Resolution 51 would propose an amendment that would revise the authority of the IHL Board to choose university presidents. HC 51 passed by a vote of 86-35.
House Bill 1407 would raise the state’s minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 and would group alternative nicotine products, like vaping and e-cigarettes, with other forms of smokeless tobacco so that these products can be taxed. The bill passed by a vote of 99-13 and has been sent to the Senate for consideration.
Similar to last week, several bills on the floor covered the topic of alcohol sale across the state. House Bill 1086 would create the Mississippi Liquor Distribution Corporation. The corporation would be similar to the one created by the Legislature to run the state lottery system, and it would function as the state’s wholesale distributor and seller of alcoholic beverages in the state. HB 1086 passed with a vote of 78-35 and has been sent to the Senate. House Bill 1096 would in turn remove the Mississippi Department of Revenue from being the wholesale distributor of wine. HB 1096 passed with a vote of 67-43 and has been sent to the Senate for consideration.
House Bill 1091, or the Mississippi Educational Talent Recruitment Act, would work to prevent “brain drain” in the state caused by recent college graduates leaving the state in pursuit of more lucrative employment opportunities. The bill is similar to one that was passed last year by the House but died in a Senate committee. HB 1091 passed the House with a vote of 111-8.
House Bill 1295, or the Life Equality Act of 2020, would prohibit abortions being performed because of race, sex or genetic abnormality except in a medical emergency. The bill passed the House by a vote of 79-33. I was a co-author of this bill.
House Bill 1200, or the FORUM Act, which prohibits universities from limiting free speech as protected under the Constitution and Bill of Rights passed by a vote of 68-52. I was a co-author of this bill.
Despite how busy legislators were with the general bill deadline, most thoughts this week were centered around COVID-19, or the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. On Wednesday evening, the first case of the illness in Mississippi was reported in Forrest County, and by the end of the week, several more cases had been announced. Speaker of the House Philip Gunn addressed the House to update members on the global pandemic’s status after meetings with the State Health Department Director. At the present time, there were no plans to suspend business in the Legislature. However, all tours at the Capitol have been suspended until further notice.
On Thursday morning, the House passed House Bill 499, which will designate part of U.S. Highway 45 in Alcorn and Prentiss Counties as “Speaker William J. ‘Billy’ McCoy Memorial Highway.” The House was joined by the late Speaker McCoy’s family and former Representative Steve Holland. Speaker McCoy was first elected to the House in 1980 and served as Speaker of the House from 2004 to 2012. He also served as chairman of the Education Committee and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee prior to being elected speaker.
We had several groups visit the Capitol this week before the ban went into affect on Thursday. Two very special groups from back home that I had the honor of seeing and welcoming to the Capitol was our Horn Lake Mayor's Youth Council and a group of Desoto County's Home Schoolers.
During the 11th week of session beginning on Monday, March 16th, the House convened to renewed and varying guidance by the Director of the Mississippi Health Department, President Trump, and the CDC. The varying guidance was to reduce public gatherings to sizes of no more than 10 to 50. Regardless of the exact number recommended, when the House convenes it averages no fewer than 150 individuals with support staff.
On Tuesday, March 17, the Mississippi House of Representatives suspended the legislative session until April 1 at 2 p.m., or a date mutually agreed upon by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann if necessary. This suspension is out abundance of caution for the members and staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the House could adjourn, several items needed to be taken up in relation to the suspension. Because the general bill deadline has already passed, a resolution was needed to suspend the rules and allow for a general bill to be introduced. Senate Concurrent Resolution 561 called for a suspension of the rules and for the introduction of a bill to authorize leave with pay for local government and local school district employees should local leadership so choose. There is currently a statute that allows for state employees to receive benefits during certain circumstances, but the statute did not permit the same for local government employees. House Bill 1647 was then introduced authorizing local governmental entities and school districts to grant administrative leave with pay during certain emergencies. The bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 118-2 and was sent to the Senate for consideration.
The second resolution taken up was House Concurrent Resolution 65. The resolution extends the session by 30 days, allows for reconvening on April 1 or upon determination by the House and Senate and adjusts the session deadlines to conform with the extended schedule. HC 65 passed by a vote of 82-38 and is expected to be taken up by the Senate on Wednesday morning.
As of the writing of this legislative update, many measures have been taken by the Mississippi state government, as well as local leaders across Mississippi. Schools and Universities across the state have been closed on a week by week basis. Gatherings and events where 50 or more are expected to convene have been cancelled. Some areas have required restaurants to close their dining rooms and only allow customers to buy take out. The Casinos across the state have been closed. Many retail outlets have readjusted their store hours. Many churches have cancelled services and are offering worship online or via Facebook live. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have jumped from 1 to more than a dozen. That all being said, the situation is very fluid, and depending on the number of new infections, additional measures may be taken.
In this environment of uncertainty and fear, it is certainly easy to loose both rationality and common sense. The primary objective of all the measures taken to date are to protect the elderly and the immunocompromised. The vast majority of folks who contract COVID-19 will experience nothing more than the flu, and in some cases even less. Our goal should be to diligently self-limit or withdraw ourselves when/if we do not feel well and are potentially going to be around large groups of people or the elderly. The best defense is a good offense; wash your hands regularly, do not touch your face and eyes, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest.
I would like to encourage all of my fellow Mississippians (and Americans) with the fact that God is still in control. This is all just temporary. Let us not give into fear and irrationality. Continue to love your neighbors, care for those who need help, and keep going to work. If you find that your schedule has loosened up as a result of this crisis, and that you have a little more time on your hands these days...make the most of it by calling an old friend and catching up, spend some much needed quality time with your family, or just start working on that list of honey-do's that you have been putting off forever. God bless.
STATE HEALTH DIRECTOR COVID-19 TALKING POINTS