Analysis: Education standards and funding, taxes and state contracts among top Miss. issues

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi's three-month legislative session begins at noon Tuesday. The governor, lieutenant governor and most of the 174 lawmakers are seeking re-election this year, and there will be plenty of jostling for attention as they tackle issues affecting the future of the state.

ACADEMIC STANDARDS

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn — all Republicans — have expressed displeasure with Mississippi's use of Common Core academic standards. However, with an independent state superintendent of education and Board of Education, it's unclear how much influence the Legislature will have on repealing or revising the standards.

Superintendent Carey Wright and state board chairman John Kelly said in a joint statement last month that they have "grave concerns" about moving away from Common Core, which the state has phased in since 2010 under the name College- and Career-Ready Standards. They said the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Mississippi's previous math standards were "mediocre" and its previous English standards were "the worst in the country."

Conservative critics, including tea party voters who are likely to influence the Republican primaries, believe Common Core could give the federal government too much control over what children are taught. Supporters of Common Core say curriculum decisions are still made at the local level.

EDUCATION FUNDING

More than 116,000 people petitioned to put a proposed constitutional amendment on this November's ballot. It would require the Legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a budget formula designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. MAEP became law in 1997 but has been fully funded only twice.

Legislators have the option of putting an alternative amendment on the ballot. Petition leaders believe an alternative could confuse voters and lead to defeat of the initiative. Legislative leaders haven't said whether they'll add an alternative, but critics say the initiative could give a judge control over the budget process that's reserved for legislators.

TAXES

Bryant proposes a tax break for people with low to moderate incomes. He says a family of four with a household income of $52,000 would receive a $921 a year tax credit, and a single person with an income of $14,590 would receive a credit of $75. The tax breaks would be available only in years when state revenue grows by at least 3 percent.

"I look at this as a dividend return," Bryant told The Associated Press in a pre-session interview. "If a business is making money, what they try to do is return some of that profit to their shareholders. Our shareholders are the taxpayers of Mississippi. They oftentimes take the risk, and they pay all the bills."

Reeves has also said he supports a tax cut, but he hasn't offered specifics.

PRISONS

Former state Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory await trial in April on federal charges that they participated in a bribery scheme tied to prison contracts. Bryant appointed a commission to review Mississippi Department of Corrections' spending, and it's asking legislators to tighten the contract process for all state agencies.

Bryant says he will ask the Legislature to move two programs away from MDOC control. He wants to put the state treasurer in charge of an inmate welfare and canteen fund, and he wants to put the secretary of state in charge of the prison system's agriculture land leasing program.

CHILD SUPPORT

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, says he'll file a bill that would take casino winnings from any parent who has overdue child support payments, directing that money to the child or children.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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