Legislative Update: Week 6—Ailing Bills and PR

Legislators were pounding away like never before this week to meet the Tuesday deadline to pass general bills out of committees.

House Bill 1013 survived the committee fights and now must face the House. The bill sets the qualification for the state Medicaid health-insurance program for the disabled and seniors. It joins a House Ways and Means Committee bill to increase the tax on cigarettes by $1, raising the state's surprisingly low 18 cent-per-pack tax to $1.18 per pack. The bill could bring in almost $180 million in new revenue every year. The same bill diverts the vast amount of that money—90 percent—to Medicaid, and directs 10 percent to the state's Trauma Care Network.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, has opposed attempts to hike the cigarette tax in the past, and has recommended the Legislature make no changes in tax law—including a cigarette tax—this year. Barbour has used surrogates in the Senate to kill past incarnations of a cigarette tax and Senate Finance Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, will be the hatchet man this year, telling reporters that he will not consider any tax bills this session.

The House Ways and Means Committee was looking for other means to support the state's ailing Trauma Care Network. It passed a bill to increase a number of state fees to fund the network, including driver's licenses, car inspection stickers, license plates, traffic fines and gun permits. The same bill would also penalize some hospitals for non-participation.

Many bills are making it past the House floor. Last week, the House approved two bills concerning state inmates. House Bill 494 authorizes the medical release of some terminally ill state prisoners, potentially saving the state some money—the bill releases the state from any financial obligation for medical costs after the offender is no longer incarcerated. The House also passed HB 509, which allows certain state inmates to perform public service work for churches.

The House practiced good public relations by passing the anti-identity theft bill HB 864, which requires businesses to notify customers in the event of a security breach that could jeopardize customers' personal information. The House shot itself in the leg, however, when it approved HB 859, which raises the pay of some statewide and county elected officials, including judges, district attorneys, sheriffs, coroners and, of course, legislators.

On the Senate side, the Senate Education Committee passed a bill mandating all school superintendents be appointed and all school board members be elected.

Senate Bill 2149 is one of the unfunded requests of the Quality Education Act of 2008, endorsed by Mississippi Education Superintendent Hank Bounds. The package includes full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, teacher pay increases, additional funding for at-risk students and a pilot pre-kindergarten program, among other measures.

"We're glad the committee approved that bill," Parent's Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome said. "The bill would save considerable time and add to efficiency regarding district leadership.

Loome said she had not written off some of the funded mandates, such as teacher pay raises, because bill deadlines for such legislation in the Senate had not yet passed.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, continued his war on State Health Officer Brian Amy. Nunnelee's bill assures that Amy can't be re-hired for any state job if his bill survives the House and gets the governor's signature. Nunnelee's legislation would also give new power to Barbour, who would get to appoint the new health officer.

While House Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland said he would not stand against the ouster of Amy, the part of Nunnelee's bill appointing Barbour's new power is dead in a bucket when it hits his committee.

"I don't think the governor needs any more power than he's already got," Holland told the Jackson Free Press last month.

The Senate Elections Committee passed an election reform bill this week that requires more training for poll workers, curbside and nursing home voting for immobile voters, but also requires statewide re-registration.

Many Republicans say re-registration would clean up voter rolls, while some Democrats representing the underprivileged fear the re-registration will ultimately kick some legitimate voters off the rolls just in time for the election.

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson told the JFP that many black voters may not be able to get re-registered in time to vote in the next elections.


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