Jackson state Sen. David Blount has pushed through three bills strengthening domestic-violence laws and protecting victims of abuse.
"We have an unacceptably high number of instances of domestic violence in the state, and we have a weak stalking law that needs to be reformed," Blount said. "After meeting with people from the Attorney General's office and from the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, I was convinced this was the right thing and something we needed to do."
Mississippi is one of eight states that do not prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to victims of domestic violence. Senate Bill 2344 would end "unfair discrimination against subjects of abuse in health benefit plans."
Although health-care providers are able to refuse coverage on the basis of abuse under current law, there have been no reported instances in the state thus far; one suspected reason there has been no reform of the law until now.
S.B. 2344 passed unanimously in the Senate on Feb. 3. The bill was sent to the House of Representatives the next day. If this bill is signed into law, insurance providers in the state will no longer have the option to deny coverage to someone solely because they have been abused. Its sister bill in the House, H.B. 657, passed by a majority vote on Feb. 4 and has moved to the Senate.
"I couldn't predict whether it will be the House Bill or the Senate Bill that we hope ultimately makes it to the governor," Blount said. "I have no pride of authorship. If it's the House Bill, and it achieves the same goal, that's fine with me."
Another bill that would require Gov. Haley Barbour to jump through extra hoops when he frees prisoners made it out of the House Corrections Committee last week. Authored by Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, House Bill 155 would require the state board to make a recommendation in favor or against a pardon.
Currently, there is no oversight or requirement on the governor's power to grant pardons. Since 2008, Barbour has pardoned or suspended the sentence of at least five convicted killers--four of whom killed their wives or girlfriends, as the JFP revealed.
"It doesn't change the authority of the governor; it allows another set of eyeballs to obtain the file to consider a pardon and make a recommendation," Jones told the Jackson Free Press.
Jones explained that the governor has made pardons without considering the cases.
"The governor can make a decision and it can do little with the things that have to do with why they are in prison," Jones said. "For example, pardoning someone on the basis that they are model prisoners really misses the point."
Jones said he expects the bill to be debated on the House floor this week.
Plans to fill the growing hole in the state's current budget moved forward Tuesday when the House and Senate picked conferees to negotiate a compromise budget plan. House lawmakers approved a bill two weeks ago that would draw $50 million from each of two state reserve funds--the health-care trust fund and the rainy-day fund--to restore budget cuts to some key agencies. On Feb. 5, the Senate passed a competing proposal that would take $58 million from the health-care trust fund only and distribute the money differently.
Hours after the Senate proposal passed on Feb. 9, Barbour announced another round of state budget cuts totaling $21 million. Those cuts, which represent roughly 0.5 percent of the state budget, bring total cuts for the 2010 fiscal year to $458.5 million. The governor warned that this round of reductions was based on the highest of three different estimates of future tax revenues.
"These cuts are probably optimistic," Barbour said. "There was conversation among some in state government that we were cutting too much. My own view is that if there's a criticism, it's that we're not cutting enough."
State tax collections for January fell $40.5 million, or 11.1 percent, below expectations, Barbour said. State law currently allows Barbour to make only equal, across-the-board cuts to all state agencies. All state agencies, except those governed by court order or protected by other statutes, are now roughly 8.7 percent below their original budget.
"I wish the Legislature allowed the governor to have more flexibility, so that I could cut some things less than 8 percent," Barbour said. "The ability to set some priorities would be useful for the governor."
The state Senate passed a bill that would have given Barbour authority to cut any agency budget by any amount, but the House has opposed any such proposal.
"While we remain apart on where to get the money and how much to use, this is an encouraging part of the legislative process," House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Renzi, said in a statement naming the House's budget negotiators. "We cannot be half-hearted when education and vital priorities are at stake. It is time for compassion. I am always optimistic and believe the glass is half full instead of half empty."