Legislative Update from Representative Jansen Owen, Pearl River County

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

The last two weeks have been hectic for Representative Jansen Owen as the committee deadline passed, and both chambers worked to clear their bills. The deadline to pass bills out of the originating chamber was Thursday, March 14, 2024. Any bill not brought up on the floor by that date died on the House calendar. Nevertheless, a wide range of historic-level legislation was passed out of the House.

INSPIRE Act Increases Public Education Spending to Historic Levels

Public education has been a top priority for Representative Jansen Owen since taking office in 2019. He and Rep. Rob Roberson and Rep. Kent McCarty developed and drafted a rewrite of Mississippi’s education funding formula. Mississippi K-12 schools are funded under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Controversial in and of itself, and despite recent historic increases in K-12 funding in the last two years, MAEP has only been fully funded twice since its passage in the late 1990s.

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The INSPIRE Act repeals and replaces the MAEP formula with a funding formula that sets a minimum base student cost at $6,650. A weighted student formula focused on funding students; each school receives additional funding – or “weights” – added to the base student cost for low-income students, special-needs students, and English language learners. Additionally, more rural districts receive additional funding to cover the increased cost of transportation. Every four years, a group comprised of the State Superintendent of Education, local superintendents from across the state, and the State Department of Education employees submit a report reviewing the formula and making recommendations for changing the minimum base student cost. Lastly, the base student cost is automatically adjusted for inflation each year.

Passage of the INSPIRE Act would see an additional $250 million in K-12 education spending over FY24, totaling $3.001 billion in education spending. This historic investment is $10 million more than the cost of fully funding MAEP. Unlike MAEP, the INSPIRE Act brings state investment focused on those poorer districts that cannot afford to fully educate their students on local funds alone—and on the students themselves.

Under INSPIRE, the Lamar County School District will see a 10.33% increase in state education funding ($7,000,000+), Poplarville School District will see a 14.94% increase in state education funding ($2,000,000+), Picayune School District will see a 19.36% increase in state education funding ($4,300,000+), and Pearl River Central School District will see an 11.00% increase in state education funding ($2,600,000+).

The House passed the INSPIRE Act and the accompanying appropriations bill – sending both to the Senate for consideration. Representative Owen hopes to see these bills pass law in the coming weeks.

House Fights to Protect Longterm Sustainability of PERS

Last week, the House passed House Bill 1590 by a vote of 85-34 – with only a portion of House Democrats opposing the measure. The bill reconstitutes the Board of Trustees of the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS). This new board would comprise the State Treasurer, the Commissioner of Revenue, four appointees from the Governor, three appointees from the Lieutenant Governor, one retired member, and one current state employee. The appointed members must have experience and expertise in managing financial and investment systems.

Currently, PERS is $20 billion in the hole. The long-term sustainability of the retirement program – and the state’s overall fiscal health – is at risk. The current board has been unable to rectify the situation and has declined to take the advice of their investment advisors. The only solution offered by this board was to increase the employer contribution rate from 17.4% to 27.4% in 2% increments over the next few years. This places school districts, cities, and counties in a difficult financial position, forcing them to either lay off employees, raise property taxes, or both. This further threatens the system by reducing the number of individuals contributing to the program.

Fifteen years ago, three (3) employees paid in for each retiree drawing benefits. Today, there are 1.2 employees for each retiree drawing benefits, and the system is inching closer to being upside down. This example is just one of the many challenges facing the future sustainability of the retirement program.

House Bill 1590 was a vote to replace the current board—the board that has failed to adequately protect PERS—with people with financial backgrounds who are more qualified to run a retirement system. It also stopped the implementation of the employer contribution increases.

Nothing in this bill addresses the 13th check. There are no changes to it, and a substantial cash infusion into the program this year – probably nearly $100 million in state monies – is necessary to shore up the program.

Representative Owen is committed to ensuring the sustainability of a healthy retirement system for all future and current retirees while maintaining and protecting all the promised benefits.

Deadline Passes for House to Send Legislation to Senate for Consideration

On March 4, the deadline passed for the House to pass bills originating in the chamber and onto the Senate for consideration. While dozens of pieces of legislation were passed, some are notable.

The House passed House Bill 900, the Families Rights and Responsibilities Act. Sponsored by Rep. Randy Rushing, this legislation underscores Mississippi’s recognition that parents maintain their paramount right to decide how to raise their children—not the state. Similarly, the Women’s Bill of Rights was passed, defining the difference between a “man” and a “woman” in state law.

House Concurrent Resolution 23 will place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for the November 2024 election, asking voters to clarify that only citizens of the United States are allowed to vote in any election in the State of Mississippi.

The Walker Montgomery Protecting Children Online Act will protect minors from harmful online material. It would require digital service providers to implement policies to protect minors from viewing harmful material and require that they verify the age of users. The bill was named after a young man who took his own life after being exploited by online predators.

Representative Owen will continue to provide updates as these bills progress. Residents are encouraged to contact him with any questions or concerns.