Week 8: Abortion, Tobacco, Katrina | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Week 8: Abortion, Tobacco, Katrina

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After declaring that he had no intention of considering abortion bills this year, House Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, caved under the pressure from House Speaker Billy McCoy and a barrage of calls from anti-abortion supporters and allowed three anti-abortion bills to come up for a vote in the House.

The House passed SB 2391 with a 95-16 vote. The bill is largely identical to the bill that irritated Senate Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, last year, when Holland added language making it useless until Roe v. Wade was overturned at the federal level. Like last year's bill, SB 2391 bans most abortions in Mississippi, but doesn't really have any teeth until the federal law gets serious scrutiny.

The bill does add more restrictions, however, discouraging the practice in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

The bill makes it mandatory for the physician performing the procedure to perform fetal ultrasound imaging and auscultation of fetal heart tone services on the patient undergoing the abortion. The physician must then offer to provide the patient with an chance to view the active ultrasound image and hear the heartbeat, if there is one.

Felicia Brown Williams, with Planned Parenthood in Hattiesburg, said she knew the pressure was on Holland to bring the bill up to a vote, but said she was not overly threatened by the bill.

"The bill could outlaw abortion eventually if the federal law is changed, but that's not happening yet. And as far as the sonogram goes, that's already being done by the center in Mississippi.

A Little Help for His Friends
The House, like the Senate, concentrated heavily on revenue bills, because of the Feb. 21 deadline for appropriation bills. The House passed its version of the tobacco tax increase/grocery tax reduction with a veto-proof majority last week, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, saw fit to protect his pro-tobacco buddies from the fallout of voting against the popular bill in an election year by not bringing the Senate version of the bill up for a vote.

The Senate may have to deal with the House version of the tax bill, HB 247, but that does not seem likely if it doesn't make it out of the Senate finance committee by the Feb. 27 deadline.

The House did not seem to be impressed with the Senate version of a bill to fund the Mississippi Tobacco Control Commission—the agency slated by the House to replace the smoking-cessation program The Partnership for A Healthy Mississippi. Former tobacco lobbyist Gov. Haley Barbour essentially killed the Partnership by clogging state funding in court, arguing that the $20 million automatic debit to the program is unconstitutional.

The House preferred its own version of the bill, and did a strike-all to SB 2777, re-inserting its own language.

The Money Bills
The House also sent through included Katrina recovery bills, such as HB 1024, which extends the duration of sales-tax exemptions for businesses unable to use exemptions on equipment and other purchases as a result of a natural disaster, and HB 1025, which extends job tax credits for producers of alternative energy who may not have been able to receive the credit because of the hurricane.

HB 879, the Mississippi Energy Act of 2007, was the House's answer to the growing national trend eco-friendliness. The bill provides income tax credits for the purchase of hybrid electric vehicles and homes that meet the U.S. Green Building Council's standards, but also requires state agencies to buy vehicles that meet federal fuel standards.

SB 277 was not the only strike-all the House imposed on a Senate bill. The House also preferred its own version of the windpool bill over the Senate's. The House's HB 1500 bill version is slightly more generous than the Senate's SB 3050, so the House sliced out the SB 3050 guts and re-stuffed it with HB 1500 language.

A third strike-all may have everything to do with the domineering nature of Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson. Reeves took a personal interest in the health of public-school children this year and helped create HB 732, a bill that increases the amount of exercise students get and removes trans fats from school cafeteria food. The Senate version of the same bill didn't go that far, Reeves said.

"Their version stopped at taking out the trans fats, and only gave the children 30 minutes of exercise a day," Reeves said. "That's not enough. I don't know why (Senate Education Chairman Mike) Chaney stopped short of making the food healthier but we'll meet and find out why."

The details on all three of these bills will now have to be ironed out in a joint committee forum.

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