Legislative look-back: busy year for advocates

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – This Mississippi Legislature wrapped up the 2016 session Thursday, April 21. Bishop Joseph Kopacz and the Catholic Charities Poverty Task Force were very active on a number of issues this year including immigration, budget cuts and abortion. Here is a look at some of the key issues that came out of the session:
A new law to prohibit dismemberment abortions in the state becomes effective July 1. On April 15, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Abortion Act, passed by the state Senate in a 40-6 vote in March and by the state House 83-33 in February.
“We applaud any effort to end abortion in our communities and will continue to support women in crisis through our efforts with Catholic Charities, adoption services, parish-based ministries and supporting organizations such as Birthright,” said Father Kevin Slattery, vicar general of the Diocese of Jackson. “There are many faithful people out there working to give women the choice of life,” he said in a statement. “We hope we can continue to build and strengthen those ministries for people in need.”
Mississippi is the fourth state to enact the measure, after West Virginia, Kansas and Oklahoma. According to National Right to Life, the legislation – based on the pro-life organization’s model bill – also has been introduced in Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri and Nebraska and may be taken up in several other states.
The procedure is a form of second-trimester abortion that “dismembers a living unborn child and extracts him or her one piece at a time from the uterus.” It is called a D&E for “dilation and evacuation.” It is different from the partial-birth abortion method used in late-term abortions, which is now illegal in the United States.
During Catholic Day at the Capitol earlier this year, advocates spoke about the need to support mental health programs, education and foster care. The state’s foster care agency was being threatened with federal takeover due to a lack of qualified workers, seemingly insurmountable backlogs and several deaths which might be attributed to child abuse.
The budget passed by the Legislature cut seven million dollars from the budget to cover mental health, about three percent, but there was some good news.
The bright spot, according to Jeannie Donovan of Jesuit Social Research institute, is that the foster care system did get spun off into it’s own department with its own budget. “Foster care funding did get increased by $34 million to avoid a federal take over. Unfortunately, funding for Medicaid was decreased slightly despite a projected increase in costs,” said Donovan.
Another presentation at Catholic Day explained how regressive taxation disproportionately impacts the poor. This year, the Legislature approved cuts to almost every department while cutting taxes and, at the same time, borrowing money. The Clarion-Ledger newspaper printed a front-page editorial calling the proposed budget ‘madness.’ Other advocates expressed similar dismay about the way the combination of cuts and borrowing would impact the state in the years to come.
The Legislature passed several tax cuts to benefit large corporations, but did not pursue any tax reform that would lift the burden on lower-income families in Mississippi. Two-thirds of the tax cut passed will go to corporations.
According to the Hope Policy Institute, a non-profit advocacy group working to alleviate the causes of poverty in the region, “most corporations in Mississippi already pay very little in corporate taxes. The franchise tax, which is eliminated in this tax cut, currently makes up 44 percent of corporate taxes collected. Three out of four corporations currently pay less than $150 in corporate income taxes, and will thus pay zero when the three percent bracket is eliminated.
“The other one-third of the cut will go to Mississippians who owe personal income taxes. The maximum tax cut per individual is $150 from the cut.  However, many of the working families who need relief the most, will not benefit from the plan at all,” according to a Hope analyst.
Revenue for fiscal year 2016 fell short of projections, causing the Governor’s office to make cuts to the existing budget. The Mississippi Adequate Education Fund got level funding, but the amount is still an estimated $170 million below “full-funding” of the formula.
“The combination of the new tax cuts and existing lack of adequate funding for public services, it seems that this Mississippi Legislature put the state on a path a fiscal crisis similar to what we’re now dealing with in Louisiana,” said Donovan
Guns in Church
Despite a new law that would allow people to carry their firearms into church, the Diocese of Jackson will maintain its current policy banning firearms and other weapons inside places of worship, schools, offices and service centers.
Bishop Joseph Kopacz does not feel there is any need to have firearms, whether they are concealed or publicly displayed, inside church-owned property.
“We are here to worship and to serve,” said Bishop Kopacz. “I understand that some parishes have private security officers and off-duty law enforcement officers patrolling their property, and that’s fine, if those people are from licensed security agencies with proper training, background checks and gun permits, but I see no reason for a gun to be inside a sanctuary or school, especially an unpermitted one,” he added.
Governor Bryant signed a law that would allow churches and other religious institutions to allow select certain members to undergo training and carry firearms inside their buildings, even without concealed weapon permits, however it remains diocesan policy not to have any firearms in diocesan and parish buildings except in those cases where the parish or institution has hired a licensed security company. There are to be no parishioners or parents patrolling their facilities with guns.
Senate Bill 2306, which Bishop Kopacz opposed, died Tuesday, April 19. The bill called for local law enforcement officers to detain anyone who is in the country illegally or who might be, regardless of why they were stopped by police. The local officers would have to notify federal authorities to come pick up the suspect.
“Our impetus in opposing the bill was to support our clients. Under this bill, if someone was stopped without their drivers’ license they could be detained and transferred to ICE (Immigration and customs enforcement) custody,” explained Amelia McGowan, program director and immigration attorney for the Migrant Support Center for Catholic Charities in Jackson. It also called for a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities,” which are places where local law enforcement are not allowed to ask any suspect about his or her immigration status. There are currently no sanctuary cities in Mississippi, but bill author Sean Tindal (R-Gulfport) felt the state should be doing more to enforce immigration laws.
McGowan joined an effort spear-headed by Church World Service to speak out against the bill. Noel Anderson, the national grassroots coordinator for the organization, contacted faith leaders from across the state, asking them to sign a letter to be hand-delivered to lawmakers. Bishop Kopacz joined the more than 40 pastors, community and religious leaders who signed the letter and McGowan hand-delivered it to Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves’ office. Other advocates delivered copies to Senate Judicial Chair Tindal and House Chair Mark Baker.
The letter criticizes the bill, saying it “would force state and local police to serve as immigration enforcement officers and comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers to hold immigrants in custody. SB 2306 strips local law enforcement agencies of critical discretion, in effect conscripting them to prioritize immigration enforcement over local public safety needs, and they will be forced to pick up the bill for it too.”
The letter goes on to caution that this bill puts immigrants at higher risk of being victims of crime repeatedly since many victims would be afraid to report crimes for fear the police would turn them over to ICE as well. “These provisions would not make communities or cities in Mississippi any safer. Rather, they would reverse community-based policing efforts that are vital to public safety in our neighborhoods. Safety increases for everyone when all individuals can report dangerous situations and seek protection from violence without the fear of being deported and separated from their families,” it reads. (EDitor’s note: coverage of other legislative issues, such as HB1523, the religious liberty bill, is available on www.mississippicatholic.com.)