The House and Senate were up against deadline yesterday for committees to either approve or reject proposed bills. The next deadline is a Feb. 11 end-date for the House and Senate to act on bills that survived committees. But the approaching deadlines took a back seat to the House and Gov. Haley Barbour's budget priorities.
The House voted to restore $100 million in budget reductions specified by the governor, amending appropriations bill S.B. 2495 to return $100 million to the state's general fund to offset some of the $437 million in budget cuts mandated by Barbour. Contrary to Barbour's plan, the House amendment takes $50 million from the state's rainy day fund and another $50 million from the tobacco settlement account.
Unlike the Senate bill, the House plan returns $60 million of almost $270 million the governor cut from K-12 and universities. The House was unable to pass the Senate bill in its original form, after representatives heard school leaders claim they would have to cut employees if the House kept the Senate cuts.
The House is not the only entity refuting Barbour's budget cuts. The Supreme Court filed an administrative order last week ruling the governor's cuts to the court system unconstitutional and directed the state fiscal officer not to impose the reductions.
The court voluntarily opted to reduce its budget by almost $1 million last year, but still faces a $1.7 million shortfall. Justices declared that the state Constitution establishes the court as a separate branch of government, and not an agency subject to budget reductions.
This past week, the House also passed a bill that will require a doctor's prescription for any drug containing the chemical pseudoephedrine a common ingredient in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines, but also a major component in the manufacturing of the illegal drug methamphetamine, or meth.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, claimed methamphetamine abuse was a serious problem among teens and young adults, and admitted that the use of the drug had claimed the life of a member of his family, and that another relative was currently an addict.
"(My brother) lost his wife and his three children. ... [A]nd on top of everything, on his second offense he was nabbed within 1,500 feet of a church. Three days after we buried my brother's ashes, my youngest brother got caught for the second time (using meth), and my motherthat honorable woman who went though the greatest trial a woman can go throughsaid my brother is living but already dead. You've got a real problem here, folks, and you've got a real solution for this and I cannot figure out why anybody would be opposed to this," he told House members.
House members hope the proposed new law will reduce meth manufacturing to the border areas of the state, forcing makers to cross state lines to get the ingredients.
The Senate Judiciary B Committee passed a similar bill restricting pseudoephedrine, but drug companies are opposing the bill in the Senate, arguing that over-the-counter drugs for legitimate use will be harder to get.
Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, supported the bill: "[T]he benefit gained by the new law in terms of decreasing the production of crystal meth greatly outweighs the inconvenience on legitimate pseudoephedrine users."
The House will also debate a bill requiring all public school-districts offer some form of sex-education. To placate House Republicans and conservative Democrats, the bill does not rule out the possibility of districts teaching abstinence-only sex education, despite substantial evidence disputing the effectiveness of abstinence-only education.
The House will also be debating a bill on eminent domain, limiting the state's ability to take private property for economic development purposes. House Concurrent Resolution 26 will amend the state Constitution, restricting eminent-domain usage to projects directly benefiting the public, such as a highway or the construction of a public building. The resolution mirrors a popular bill that Barbour vetoed last year.
The governor argued last March that the state needed the use of eminent domain for endeavors such as the Nissan plant in Canton and the proposed Toyota plant in north Mississippi. Barbour argued that local governments offered enough protection to landowners because large projects require the approval of local government and the Legislature.
Nevertheless, eminent-domain restriction remains a popular issue among Mississippi legislators of both parties, who tend to frown upon snatching private property to build a shopping mall or other enterprise. Senate Republicans, in particular, argued last year that the state should not be able to take private property to help a company make a profit. Republicans were unable to commit enough votes to override the governor's veto, however, alienating many of them from their anti-government base.
If the resolution makes it out of a Senate committee this year and gets vetoed, the subsequent veto-override attempt will likely mean a new round of black eyes for Republicans heading into the 2011 elections.
The Senate passed S.B. 2960 last Wednesday, a bill that would change state code to eliminate disqualification of a municipal employee from being appointed to the board of trustees of the school district where he or she is employed. Also facing a Senate floor vote soon is a bill making some forms of animal cruelty a felony. Opponents say the law can be misinterpreted to include livestock animals, although author Baria says the law specifically disqualifies livestock.