Wednesday, February 22, 2012
On the first floor of the Capitol last Wednesday, a handful of Democrats assembled to enjoy a late lunch when a burly assistant sergeant-at-arms burst in to say that Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, who presided that day, wanted all the members to return to the chamber.
"We're not going," responded Rep. Omeria Scott of Laurel, casually. "We're in protest."
For a moment, it appeared that House Democrats would refuse to go back to the floor so there wouldn't be a quorum to vote on the Sunshine Act, similar to how Democrats in Wisconsin responded to Gov. Scott Walker's dismantling of labor unions in that state.
Democrats had complained that, if passed, the new "sunshine" law would severely hamstring Attorney General Jim Hood's ability to perform his duties as the state's top legal eagle. This time around, Republicans got their wish, and the bill passed 59-55. But with every passing week, it seems Democrats, who are in the minority in the House for the first time in more than 100 years, have more to complain about.
The Legislature also quietly passed House Concurrent Resolution 33, which, broadly speaking, set the joint rules for both houses. It contains a provision for appropriation bills that forces members to offset spending increases in one area with an equal cut somewhere else in the budget.
"You're going to have these far-right conservative budgets with no way to leverage them at all," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-McComb, acknowledged that although the change doesn't limit lawmakers from spending money, it consolidates power into the hands of a few Republicans.
"This change places important budget items into the hands of a few power brokers and effectively silences the voice of individual legislators who want to oppose deep cuts to education," Butler said.
On Feb. 16, the Senate Education Committee also held a hearing on a charter-schools bill, which chairman Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, introduced. The bill creates a new agency, the Mississippi Public Charter School Authorizer Board, to approve and regulate new charter schools. Seven members, appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, state superintendent of education and commissioner of higher education, would make up the board. The ability to start a charter school would be open to any person or organization. It would also require that the number of charter school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch to be about the same as public schools in the area. As far as teachers that charters schools can hire, up to 50 percent of their teaching staffs can be noncertified.
The Senate Education Committee passed the bill Tuesday.
Bills of Note
HB 574: Prohibit legislators from engaging in lobbying for four years after leaving office. (Rep. Henry Zuber III, R-Ocean Springs)
HB 596: Authorize carrying pistols or revolvers unless specifically prohibited by law. (Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune)
HB 627: Prohibit gun buy-back programs. (Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus)
SB 2376: Create a felony offense for voyeurism when the victim is under 16. (Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula)
SB 2459: Authorize the Department of Finance and Administration to sell or lease the Robert E. Lee Building (239 N. Lamar St.). (Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson)
SB 2484: Increase salaries of sheriffs. (Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson)
SB 2486: Revise the duty of the Mississippi Department of Corrections to maintain certain records for offenders. (Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula)