The House passed several bills last week, some more contentious than others. House Bill 555 extends the existence of the embattled Mississippi State Board of Health, though Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said he expected Senate Public Health & Welfare Committee Chairman Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, to enter his own Senate bill revamping the administration.
Nunnelee held Senate hearings last year on reforming the agency, and State Health Officer Brian Amy barely squeaked by with a narrow confidence vote by the State Board of Health. Nunnelee said he wants to introduce a bill reconstituting the board—with Amy playing no part in the new structure.
Holland said he is fine with Nunnelee taking the initiative, but entered HB 555 as a safety net preserving the organization if the Senate's bill gets bogged down in argument.
Other bills such as HB 566 provide a birth certificate for stillborn infants, while HB 801 increases paid training hours of poll workers.
The House also passed HB 431, extending agricultural leases of prison lands to private entities and passed HB 603, which repeals the law restricting alcohol producers and distributors from having a financial interest in an alcohol retail business.
HB 296 may prove the more controversial bill leaving the House last week, increasing unemployment compensation benefits up to $250 per week. The House passed the bill with an 86-to-33 vote. Mostly Republicans voted against the bill, with Rep. Bobby Shows, D-Ellisville, posing the lone Democrat opposition.
Rep. Mike Lott, R-Forrest, said he feared raising unemployment benefits would drop the state's $727 million unemployment trust fund below $500 million. Should that occur, state money from the fund would no longer be available for employee training.
"Once below that figure, that $20 million (for employee re-training) ceases and desists for our community colleges, and our employers' tax rates are liable to increase," Lott argued, seeking to insert an amendment to the bill that slowed the increase.
House Democrats pounced on arguments against raising benefits.
Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, summarized the vote as a choice between social classes. "Let's be frank. If you vote for the gentleman from Forrest, BIPEC (business lobbyists Business & Industry Political Education Committee) is going to clap for you. If you vote no, they're going be teed off, and your score with them is going to go down. But we've helped businesses in this state. … Now it's time to do something for the working people of Mississippi. "
Ricky Cummings, D-Iuka, echoed Franks, telling the House to "vote for the working man, and let your senator vote for BIPEC."
The amendment failed 52-to-68 before the bill itself flew from the House.
Some bills heading to the House from committees include HB 727, a Juvenile Justice Committee production that prohibits state Circuit Courts from automatically imposing a mandatory sentence for anybody under age 17. It also prohibits the court from sentencing any child to life without parole. This bill already gathered fanfare last week with a youth advocate rally on the steps of the Capitol.
HB 567 could be a development boom for Jackson, establishing a $10 million facility to treat burn victims at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Burn victims currently have to go out of state for treatment.
The Senate passed SB 2494, which makes an additional appropriation to the State Veterans Affairs Board to defray expenses.
This week, Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson, stuck to his vow of making students healthier by getting HB 732 through the House with a 79-to-41 vote. The bill requires that school officials monitor the body mass index of students, making note of individuals with comparatively high amounts of fat, and imposes 30 minutes of daily exercise to students and nearly an hour of health education. It also bans trans fats from school cafeterias.
"We're the fattest state in a nation that's the fattest in the world," Reeves told the House. "This is nothing to be proud of."
Some House members such as Rep. Steve Horne, R-Meridian, called the bill "communistic," arguing that the government had no right to poke into the lives of students.
Reeves argued that the bill applies to public schools, which are under the auspices of the government already.
"If this bill passes, we'll be the first state in the nation to bar trans fats from (school) cafeterias," Reeves said later. "Not even California does that."
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who defends most health-related causes, attempted to disembowel the bill by inserting an amendment removing the food-related language. His amendment failed. He did not return calls for explanation.
JPS Board of Trustees President H. Ann Jones and board Vice President Jonathan Larkin said they would work with the state school board in implementing the bill if it passes the Senate and governor. "I don't see any problem with the bill so far," Jones said.
I recall "Health Ed" in school. It was a nice nap.