Legislative Roundup—Week 4: Smokin'

House Committees churned away this week, trying to make the Jan. 30 session deadline on bill submissions. HB 202 creates a criminal offense for attempted murder—something the state has never had. The charge currently falls under aggravated assault. Another crime-oriented bill, HB 982, increases penalties for crimes against Mississippi's disabled, and HB 1303, which allows the return of a weapon to a suspect after the charges have been dropped against him or her.

A bill that could potentially complicate school success scores is HB 1084, which demands that school districts include graduation and dropout rates, when submitting information to state agencies.

JPS Board of Supervisor President H. Ann Jones said JPS would comply with the wishes of the Legislature in an earlier interview but told the JFP that students who transfer to other cities or states might be counted against schools' graduation rate.

The House passed a few safety-oriented bills, including HB 581, which regulates public swimming pools' sanitation standards, water supply, safety equipment and other issues.

Getting married will become simpler if HB 167 survives the House floor. That bill removes the three-day waiting period and the blood test for getting married. It also revises the age requirement for getting married: age 19 for the guy, 15 for the girl. If you're a girl under 18, though, your parents must be notified.

The House is working to reclaim the state's right of honor as the birthplace of blues. HB 1488 creates a Cultural Heritage Development Fund to establish markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail, a move designed to bring more attention to the area where blues music, one of the nation's true native-born phenomena, came into existence. The bill also calls on the state to ask Washington to designate the Delta as the "Delta National Heritage Area" putting a little more power behind the state's tourism industry.

Though House floor action consisted of many highway designations and personality commendations later in the week, the house did pass HB 567, establishing a treatment center for burn victims at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. A visitor to the Legislature last week may have noticed the high count of reflective arm patches and chest emblems indicating the presence of firefighters. Firefighters from all over the state gathered at the Capitol and sat in the House balcony, awaiting the approval of HB 567.

Mississippi's last burn center closed down in Greenville two years ago, forcing burn victims to go out of state for treatment. A House bill replacing the burn center died in the Senate last year, but the House pushed the bill through again this year in the hope that election-year timing and a bigger state budget will prompt the state to build a $10 million replacement at UMC, in Jackson.

The House also passed HB 400, which requires "ultimate" reporting of political campaign contributions. The bill requires most of the money denoted by political action committees be reported to the state. The body passed this measure after quashing a campaign contribution bill last week that would have required politicians to pay back any unused portion of their campaign coffers to the donors or a charity if they lost the election.

On the Senate side, the Insurance Committee passed SB 3050, or the Mississippi Economic Growth and Redevelopment Act of 2007, which is similar to a House bill expanding the state's windpool, which provides home and business owners with insurance when private insurers are scarce.

Earlier this week, Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, declared war on the state's Board of Health, submitting a bill that puts an end to the current board. SB 2764 disbands the board and specifically targets Health Officer Brian Amy, making him ineligible for re-appointment and restricted from being "employed in any state service or non-state service position in the State of Mississippi."

House Public Health Chairman Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, expressed last week that he was content to wait and see what Nunnelee's bill would look like, but this week, he announced his opposition upon learning that the senator's bill gives the governor the authority to appoint a new board chairman.

"This is the House of Representatives. I'm chair of Public Health. The House, by majority vote, feels that the power is better served when it's dispersed among many, not in the hands of just one, and we're going to keep that philosophy intact," said Holland, who has long been a critic of Gov. Haley Barbour.

On Monday, Nunnelee submitted SB 3098, which would raise cigarette taxes to $1 while reducing the state's 7 percent grocery tax by half.

Senate and House members had been awaiting the bill, which is almost identical to a tax swap bill from last year that was stomped down by Barbour. That bill sparked a battle between health and low-income advocates and Barbour, who is a former tobacco lobbyist. Barbour vetoed the bill last year, and the Senate could not produce enough votes to override the veto, despite the bill's widespread popularity.


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