Children First Act Helps Identify Failing Schools
By Gray Tollison
On April 1, the Legislature recessed with plans to resume work in a month to finalize the budget and other critical unresolved issues.
Plans are that the Senate and House of Representatives will reconvene on May 4. That date could change if the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House agree.
Still unresolved is the state budget for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1. The budget and policies for the Division of Medicaid have not been passed. And, no agreement has been reached on an increase in cigarette taxes.
On January 29, I proposed an amendment in the Senate to raise the cigarette tax to $1, the same amount that was passed by the House of Representatives. The amendment was defeated by four votes and the Senate passed a bill with to increase the tax to 49 cents, the average of our surrounding states at the time. Since then, Arkansas has passed a major cigarette tax increase, raising the average to 64 cents. Senate and House negotiators have not been able to reach a compromise between the two versions.
I strongly believe an agreement needs to be reached as soon as possible. Delaying by one month a cigarette tax of 90 cents a pack causes the state to forfeit more than $10 million. That money could be used to address the potentially dramatic increase in the cost of car tags.
Car Tag Prices
In the 1990s, the Legislature raised the sales tax on new car sales and dedicated the money to reduce car tag costs for all Mississippians. The legislative tax credit is applied to the car tag tax set by the counties. This year, with a collapse in new car sales, the balance in the state fund has been exhausted. The only reason car tags have not gone up already is that that the state is delaying the money the counties are due. If money isn’t found to replenish the fund, the cost of car tags could double.
The Senate passed legislation to save the car tag fund by dedicating some of the initial revenue generated by the increased cigarette tax. This is a stop-gap measure to ensure the already high cost of car tags does not spike. We must solve this problem before July 1.
I do want to point out some accomplishments of this year.
We have passed one important bill to address underperforming school districts. The “Children First Act of 2009” will help the state identify failing school districts and provide them the leadership, management oversight, and guidance they need to be successful.
It requires that school districts provide parents more information about the performance of their schools, demands greater accountability for school superintendents and school board members, and allows the State Department of Education greater authority to intervene early to assist struggling schools. We must make sure that the money the state provides each district is used effectively. We must also ensure that all children, regardless of their district, are receiving a solid education. The Governor has signed into law the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. This law assists children of military personnel with varying academic and graduation requirements in different states. The bill was pushed by the Department of Defense and the National Military Families Association. It provides greater flexibility for these children whose parents move often due to redeployment. I will continue working on my proposal to start a Pre-K program for the children of military personnel.
With the session in recess, virtually all important negotiations are made in a few remaining conference committees. These committees, composed of three Senators and three Representatives, must come to an agreement on any legislation before the full Senate and House may vote. These legislators can continue to talk while we are not in session and, I hope, agree so that when we resume our work we can quickly complete our business.
It is an honor to serve you in the State Senate. Please do not hesitate to contact me regarding any issue in the legislature or any matter that you may have with a state agency. I can be reached in Jackson at 601-359-3425 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. I may also be reached in Oxford at 601-234-7070 or by email at email@example.com.