Last year, District 58 Representative Joel Bomgar focused on criminal justice reform, government transparency, the opiod epidemic, the economy, and employment. This year he has the same priorities, and will especially focus on criminal justice reform.
“We have a real opportunity to work on criminal justice reforms this session,” Bomgar said.
Criminal justice reform came to the forefront of the legislature in efforts to get ex-cons employed and in turn aid the economy by keeping Mississippi residents employed. In 2018, Bomgar assisted the passing of House Bill 387 into law.
“That bill limits the use of debtor’s prisons to collect fees, creates a new path to reentry for individuals seeking to reenter the workforce and allows individuals who are currently working to meet with their parole officer using technology like FaceTime to minimize disruption to their employment,” Bomgar said.
But in the 2019 session, none of the bills passed by House and Senate associated with criminal justice reform were signed into law. These bills aimed at reducing the state’s prison population and getting people back to work. This is something that Bomgar has said was a priority of his since 2017.
“It’s important for us to address these issues now because our state prisons are currently under investigation. By proactively working to reduce our prison population, we can reduce the potential for a costly federal takeover of the system. We can also make sure that we’re creating pathways to work so that people leaving our prisons can support themselves and their families,” said Bomgar.
Currently the U.S. Department of Justice are investigation four Mississippi prisons for living conditions.
“By implementing these reforms correctly, we can provide better results for taxpayers by protecting public safety and using their tax dollars more wisely.”
Other focuses for Bomgar include the economy, and the needs of District 58.
“One of the biggest concerns I hear from my constituents is that their kids and grandkids are moving out of state to places like Austin and Nashville for work. One of my top priorities is creating more high-paying jobs here in Mississippi so that our kids and grandkids don’t have to leave the state for the job they want.”
According to Bomgar, eliminating the state’s income tax would be a significant step in the right direction to make Mississippi a better place to live, work, and raise a family.
“The legislature also has an opportunity this session to repeal our state’s income tax, which would provide a huge boon to the state’s economy,” said Bomgar.
“While other southern states, like Texas and Tennessee, have experienced record growth in recent years, Mississippi has lagged behind. This is due in part to our state’s business climate, which is less desirable than some of these other states.”
One thing that many of these states have in common is that other states don’t have a state income tax.
“This creates a competitive advantage, attracting individuals and businesses to locate there, growing the state’s economy and creating better-paying jobs for residents. Mississippi is currently competing at a disadvantage, and eliminating our state’s income tax could help us compete with other southern states for new, high-paying jobs.”
District 29 Sen. David Blount of Jackson expects the 2021 legislative session could be challenging from the start, depending upon COVID-19.
“We will convene on Jan. 5 but whether we stay in session or take a bit of a break will be dictated by the facts on the ground at the time,” he said. “The legislative leadership in the House and the Senate will look at the situation and determine whether it’s safe to put a whole bunch of people together in one building.”
Since Congress passed a second stimulus package to support the economy, the Legislature will have to spend time appropriating funds from it.
“We’ll have to look at that closely and see what we need to do. That’s what we did with the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.”
Blount plans to support Gov. Tate Reeves’ efforts to give public school teachers a pay raise. Last session, the Senate passed a bill that would have given each teacher a raise of $1,000 but the House did not take it up because of budget concerns during the pandemic.
Blount said he favors the expansion of Medicaid to cover 300,000 Mississippians who don’t have health insurance and work in jobs that do not provide insurance.
“The cost to state government and hospitals for treating those without health insurance is more than what it would cost the state to draw down $1 billion in federal funds,” he said. “It is absolutely the right thing to do. It is costing state agencies and health care providers tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s clearly in the state’s interest to do it. Gov. Reeves has expressed his opposition but I don’t agree with it.”
Blount said he would like to see a federal program that would provide funds for improved infrastructure, including water and sewer systems and streets and bridges.
“This is not just an issue in Jackson but all over the country,” he said. “A national infrastructure program would put people to work providing essential public service.”
Reeves has proposed eliminating the state income tax, which accounts for one-third of the overall state budget, but that would be reckless to do without a plan to replace those funds, Blount said.
“Just imagine cutting the state highway budget by one third, funding for the Department of Health by one third and funding for the criminal justice system by one third,” he said.
Changing the state flag was the biggest accomplishment for the 2020 legislative session, said Blount, who for many years has filed a bill to do such.
“It was long overdue,” he said. “It was done in a bi-partisan way and overwhelmingly ratified by the people of the state.”
Early efforts to change the flag included mostly legislators who were Democrats but that began to shift as the people’s sense of historical injustices that needed to be faced grew, the economic consequences of holding out became significant and the state’s image presented to the world took on importance, he said.
“There began to be a lot of interest from Republican legislators who showed political courage,” Blount said. “That courage was affirmed by the vote.”
Blount said he would like for Mississippi’s election process to be improved and he has introduced bills meant to do that in past sessions.
“Historically, in Mississippi it’s difficult to make progress with regard to voting,” he said. “There were frustrations among people this year in both parties about how difficult it is to vote by mail and the fact that there is no early voting for most citizens.
“We need to have early voting in Mississippi. We need online voter registration in Mississippi. We need to make it easier and safer for every qualified Mississippi citizen to vote.”
Blount plans to introduce once again a bill that would increase the tax on e-cigarettes and other vaping products.
“I think that vaping products should be taxed like other tobacco products. They’re a nicotine delivery system, are additive and ought to be taxed like cigarettes,” he said. “Right now, they’re taxed like a bag of chips or a candy bar, just with regular sales tax.”
E-cigarettes are not taxed like other tobacco products because they didn’t exist when the original law that set the tax on tobacco products was passed, he said. The tax in Mississippi on a pack of 20 cigarettes is 68 cents, which is among the lowest in the country.
Blount said the tax he proposes on e-cigarettes would increase the cost and that could help curb teen and under-age vaping, which is a problem in the state. “The price would be a factor and make it clearer that this is a nicotine delivery device like cigarettes and not a safe alternative,” he said.
Blount served as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee and worked with Sen. Dennis DeBar Jr., chair of the committee, and the Mississippi state Department of Education to come up with a plan to distribute laptop computers and help schools improve internet access, using funding provided by the CARES Act.
“It’s been shown that we did that as quickly and efficiently as any state in the country,” Blount said. “We coordinated it in a uniform manner through the state Department of Education We didn’t say to each school district, ‘Here’s a check go buy computers.’
“We were able to be among the first in the country because we had a single large contract based on behalf of the entire state. Jackson public schools and Hinds County public schools have laptops. It was a huge effort.”
Blount said he welcomes constituents to contact him about issues of concern and the upcoming session. “It’s now more important than ever that I hear from the people who I represent because I’m not able to be out of in the community like I usually because of COVID,” he said.
The best way to reach Blount is by calling his office at 601-359-3221 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.