There won’t be a special session to address legalizing medical marijuana in Mississippi, but the issue will be the first thing Coast Legislatures say they will pass and send to the governor’s desk when they convene in January.
Four members of the Coast delegation spoke Tuesday at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber’s Pre-Legislative Briefing at Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi. They also addressed hot topics like mobile sports betting, regional tourism, nursing shortages, teacher pay raises and the windfall of money coming to the state.
The House and Senate already are in agreement on the bill, said Rep. Henry “Hank” Zuber III, R-Ocean Springs. He said the legislators have given Gov. Tate Reeves the majority of changes he requested, and what remains at contention is a difference of opinion on the level of TCH , or tetrahydrocannabinol, that should be allowed.
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Gulfport, said he visited a marijuana dispensary in Florida while at a conference with Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, who has been leading the negotiations between the two state chambers to draft a medical marijuana bill.
They saw how the product is packaged, Thompson said, and about 50% of the marijuana THC is edible and capsule form.
For patients who really need pain relief, no one recommends smoking marijuana, he said.
The governor can veto the bill if he doesn’t like the language.
“I certainly hope he doesn’t, because 75% of the people voted for it, or a version of it,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.
Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said he thinks it’s very important that Mississippi voters have their wishes heard.
The Mississippi ballot initiative that was used to legalize medical marijuana only allows the constitution to be changed to reflect the voters’ wishes, he said, while other states allow the issues to be initiated into the legislature to take action.
“I think the legislature will address this,” he said. Delano said he hasn’t spoken to any legislature who is opposed to fixing the ballot initiative process.
These are among the other issues discussed:
Mobile sports betting
Now that Louisiana has legalized mobile sports betting, the issue becomes more timely to keep Mississippi casinos competitive, the legislators said.
DeLano introduced a bill last year for the Gaming Commission to regulate mobile sports betting and he said he expects it to be introduced again this year.
“I will say that there are many concerns about the impacts that online gaming would have, or could have,” he said. Mobile sportsbook is just the first product the “big players” want to bring to a mobile device, he said, followed by online slots machines, poker and roulette.
“I think the brick and mortar (casinos) are, or should be, very concerned with what the next venture will be,” he said. It should be a balance between maintaining South Mississippi as a tourist destination, he said, and giving the casino operators “the opportunity to be competitive in an ever changing marketplace.”
Zuber said, “We’re talking about sports betting through your cell phone.” He said the House may be in agreement to allow mobile sports betting, but the issue is whether the bet needs to be placed inside a casino or can it be placed anywhere in Mississippi,
Regional tourism partnership
The fight in Coastal Mississippi regional tourism commission that led to the resignation of the executive director and several directors during the summer makes South Mississippi look bad, the legislators said.
“When we start fighting like that the people in Jackson shake their heads,” Wiggins said, because they would trade with the Coast to have the money to promote tourism.
When additional funding is available for next year, the Coast does not have the votes in the Mississippi Legislature to outvote the rest of the state,” he said. Wiggins said he worked for three years to bring the majority of the BP money to be spent on the Coast. The first iteration of the bill had only 20 votes —the Coast delegation — against 150 in the house that wanted to share the funds.
There have been calls for the legislature to “fix” the rules for Coastal Mississippi as a three-county tourism partnership.
It was through local and private legislation, DeLano said. “The only way that local private legislation can be amended is if the boards of supervisors from the requesting counties send us a resolution in support of this.”
Eliminating income tax
Zuber said he agrees with the governor and speaker of the house that Mississippi needs to eliminate the state income tax to make the state more attractive to younger people. The House is considering deleting the income tax over time, he said, cutting the grocery tax in half and increasing sales tax.
Mississippi already has the lowest tax burden compared to Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, Thompson said. The state also has “terrible infrastructure,” he said, a rural health care crisis and other issues.
“We have to be very careful in how we go about eliminating the income tax in Mississippi,” he said, when it provides 32% of the state’s revenue.
Billions on the way to Mississippi
The legislators started tallying the money coming to Mississippi including $1.8 billion from the federal rescue plan, money from the Cares Act, from BP, GoMesa, tidelands and other sources.
“There’s so much money floating in the economy,” Zuber said. “Literally it’s billions and billions of money that we have to spend.”
Some of it is directed specifically for workforce development, fixing roads and bridges and extending internet broadband to unserved communities.
The legislators said addressing the nursing shortage is at the top of the priority list, along with pay raises for teachers and some state employees.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Zuber said.
“I think that can’t be overstated,” Wiggins said. “And we have to put it in the right areas.”
“Make sure we spend the money in what’s in the best interest of you and the citizens of Mississippi and not special interest,” Zuber said.