The House Appropriations Committee started the 2007 legislative session off with a gun-shot—but then fell on its face later that day. The committee approved a total of seven money bills that flew off to the House floor for a vote, but House members later stuffed the bills because they were unwilling to suspend rules, allowing for an early vote.
Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, called the bill onslaught a "political action," by House Democratic leaders to characterize Republicans as unsympathetic to Mississippi Adequate Education Program and state employees.
"What leaders have done is cut off one-half of that membership," Denny said. "In my 20 years of working in the House, we always had a reasonable situation in the House where we could disagree in a manner that would get something done. But (House Speaker) Billy (McCoy) putting forward those bills without letting us review them, the idea of him doing these kinds of things doesn't serve the public at all. I can't imagine that he wouldn't have considered that a rule suspension—wouldn't have happened."
Democratic leaders failed to take up those bills the next day, drawing criticism from some Republicans who had stifled the bills the day before. McCoy told the Sun-Herald: "We're in the throes of other things right now. It may be a few days before those come back up."
Hands Off Private Property
The House did pass an eminent-domain bill looking to limit the power of the state government to claim private property for the use of non-government purposes, however.
House Bill 300—an echo of the property dispute involving the Nissan plant in 2001—limits the power of the state to begin eminent-domain proceedings for the purposes of private development. Property-rights advocates fought for this position in 2001, when Madison County resident Lorenzo Archie battled the state of Mississippi for his family's right to retain a one-acre plot desired by the incoming Nissan plant for a parking lot. Archie's attorneys complained that the state was abusing eminent-domain law by trying to take the property for private development and enrichment rather than government use.
Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, who submitted the bill along with Rep. Edward Blackmon, D-Canton, said the bill should rightfully be a law. "I'm glad they passed it," Franks said. "They should've passed it."
A total of 20 votes stood ineffectively against HB 300. All those opponents, save Rep. Mary Ann Stevens, D-West, were Republican. The opponents included Reps. Denny, Jim Ellington, Roger Ishee and Mike Lott—all of whom voted against suspending House rules on Jan. 2, which would have allowed passage of MAEP, wind pool and state-employee pay-raise bills out of the House Appropriations Committee.
The Senate adjourned a little after 10 a.m., and the House session ended minutes after convening at 1 p.m. The House Labor Committee and Public Health Committee put out some bills, however.
A House Public Health sub-committee produced a replacement for the hobbled Partnership for a healthy Mississippi. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who is chairman of the committee, made it clear that he was seeking to replace the Partnership after former tobacco lobbyist Barbour and State Treasurer Tate Reeves challenged the legality of the Partnership in court last year.
Barbour claimed the Partnership's automatic debit of $20 million from annual payments to the state from tobacco companies was unconstitutional and required annual oversight from legislators, along with the governor's signature, to be legal.
The case regarding the legitimacy sits in Supreme Court, but Barbour successfully cut funding to the Partnership late last year until a judge decides the case. The smoking-cessation program is financially dead until then, so Holland produced House Bill 349 to fill in for the Partnership.
The act provides a "comprehensive and statewide tobacco education," that Holland said has the best qualities of the Partnership.
"Though it's not the Partnership, I can say this is the double first cousin, on the momma's side," Holland said.
The bill will establish a Tobacco Control Commission Fund, to which the Legislature will divert $20 million, barring the governor's veto. The money will then go to agencies and programs similar or the same as the ones employed by the Partnership, including tobacco-awareness programs in public schools and after-school programs, and tobacco-awareness commercials on nighttime television—all aimed at children.
The New Additions
The House got two new members this week. Reps. Ken Morgan and Harvey Fillingane, both Republicans, won seats in a Jan. 2 runoff elections and were sworn in Jan. 9.
Morgan replaced Rep. Virginia Carlton, who went on to preside over the Mississippi Court of Appeals. Fillingane, father of outgoing Rep. Joey Fillingane, will replace his son, who was elected to the Senate last year.
"Mississippi has bucked the national trend and stayed conservative," said Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring in a press statement. "Not only did we hold two seats in the House of Representatives yesterday, we were also victorious during November's special elections with Steven Palazzo's win in House District 116, Lydia Graves Chassaniol's win in Senate District 14, and Joey Fillingane's win in Senate District 41. We swept five out of six Legislative Special Elections."
For the Working Man
All the new Republicans couldn't stall a minimum-wage increase bill rocketing out of the House Labor Committee, though. The committee passed two employee-related bills. HB 296 raises unemployment benefits from $210 a week to no more than $240 on July 1 and then to no more than $250 on July 1, 2008. The second, more ambitious bill, HB 237, is a local take on the national Democrats' demand for a minimum-wage hike.
HB 237 calls for every state employer to raise minimum wage to $6.25 by July 1, 2007, and to $7.25 beginning Jan. 15, 2008. The House successfully passed HB 296 Tuesday night, after first fitting it with an amendment excluding the wage hike for part-time school or college workers.
Barbour attacked the bill as soon as it passed the committee, claiming that jobs will flee to nearby states if Mississippi hikes its minimum wage, and told The Clarion-Ledger that other states were "laughing up their sleeves."
Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, accused Barbour of favoritism toward businesses over regular wage earners in a press statement. "(Under Barbour's direction, the Legislature) has passed tax breaks and incentives for businesses, we have given away hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to businesses, we have reduced the unemployment taxes to businesses, and we have not done diddly-squat for the men and women who take their lunches to work everyday. …" Mayo said Thursday. "I am well aware of what this may do to small businesses in the short run, but when a governor has so little concern for the working man and woman to make such a disparaging remark, someone or some representatives have to stand apart and say 'We care.'"
Rep. Mike Lott, R-Petal, said after the Tuesday vote that the state is shooting itself in the foot by passing the minimum-wage bill. "What we should do is wait for Congress to pass it on the federal level. That way, our state wages won't be any higher than that of the states around us. We'll all be the same wage and we won't be running any business off."
Some House members argued that the minimum-wage vote in Washington is not guaranteed, despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's vow to raise the minimum wage within the first "100 hours" of the 102nd Congress.
"We should never sell ourselves as cheap labor again," said Rep. Ricky Cummings, D-Iuka.
The legislative session was not without some health casualties. Rep. Leonard Morris, D-Batesville, was in critical condition one week into the session after suffering complications from kidney surgery. The University Medical Center operated to remove a tumor from Morris' kidney, but some legislators believed doctors expanded the procedure was to remove the whole kidney. UMC would not comment on the changes of the procedure, but did tell House information officer Mac Gordon that they had improved his condition from critical to serious.
As in every session, people eager to get their voices heard will hold rallies at the Legislature. The Delta Catalyst Roundtable, a coalition of 10 Delta region organizations looking to get MAEP fully funded this year, is holding a 10 a.m. press conference Jan. 10, on the first floor in the Capitol Rotunda.
Community activist group Mississippi ACORN is holding a 1:30 p.m. press conference that same day, pushing for a local minimum-wage increase, such as the one offered by HB 237, or a similar bill.
On Thursday, the Senate will have an annual legislative fiscal briefing at 9 a.m., and two appropriations subcommittee meetings, both at 1:30 p.m.
See the Mississippi State Desk website for daily news and blogging from the Capitol.
Mr. Lynch, once again. Thank you for the coverage. Please keep up the good work. Some of us out here are looking for some straight forward reporting. I just want to know the facts!
Well done and I look forward to more of your inteviews.
- Doc Rogers