- Associated Press - Monday, January 2, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s 174 legislators will return to the Capitol Tuesday, starting a 90-day legislative session that will run as late as April 2. There will be touches of festivity, including events celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mississippi becoming a state in 1817. But leaders are setting an ambitious agenda that could include a rewrite of the state’s public school funding formula.

Here’s a look at top issues:



House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, want to make changes to Mississippi’s 20-year-old education funding formula. Gunn has said he’s looking for more efficiency, not less overall money. But changes would likely result in losses for some districts unless lawmakers increase total spending. Legislators have fully funded the current formula only twice since enacting it in 1997, running a cumulative $1.9 billion short since 2009.



The financial picture is ugly, with leaders initially recommending a budget 3 percent smaller for the year beginning July 1. That’s down nearly $200 million, although much could change before plans are finalized in March. The recommendation includes the next step in a 12-year phase-in of $415 million in tax cuts approved in 2016. Republicans also want to remove civil service protection from state employees.



Expect talk about raising more money for roads and bridges, but maybe not much action. GOP opposition to fuel tax increases remains strong. House Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, says he’ll introduce multiple proposals and see if any gain support.



Lawmakers must decide if they will change a law passed last year that stops most state agencies from paying each other for services. That measure moved many earmarked fees out of “special funds” into the general budget. That left some programs that rely on earmarked fees pondering how to fund operations. Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has said lawmakers can’t take some money, meaning $30 million or more is stranded, with neither original agencies nor lawmakers able to spend it.



A bill to change election and campaign finance reporting rules foundered in the House last year, despite reports showing lawmakers were spending money to subsidize their lifestyles or pocketing it upon retirement. Gunn vowed to make the issue a priority this year. Key issues include whether lawmakers can take money for personal use up to a certain deadline, whether credit card spending must be itemized, and what happens when lawmakers leave office.



In a grim budget year, there is one chance for lawmakers to spend - the $750 million that Mississippi is supposed to get over 17 years from oil giant BP PLC as repayment for economic damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Gulf Coast lawmakers are pushing for all the cash to be spent in their region, arguing that’s where the oil was, and Reeves is supporting them.



Three years after Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill meant to reduce the state’s prison population, lawmakers may try to accelerate reductions. Technical violation centers, created for short-term stays by parole violators, haven’t been as effective as hoped. A task force recommends making burglary offenders eligible for drug court, and funding transitional housing for those exiting prison.


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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