Strangulation, Security and Suffrage | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Strangulation, Security and Suffrage

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Gov. Haley Barbour said he was fine with missing a critical budget deadline if it meant reducing the state's spending.

Both chambers of the state Legislature spent the past week considering bills from the opposite chamber. The House amended Senate Bill 2923—a bill that expands domestic assault to include strangulation and requires a "cooling off" period between parties—to create the offense of attempted murder.

Mississippi law currently does not include the specific offense of attempted murder, which law enforcement says makes it more difficult to prevent assault and murder. SB 2923 recognizes as attempted murder any attempt to kill another human being, or attempting to cause or purposely or knowingly cause bodily injury to another human being with a deadly weapon. The sentence could range from 20 years to life in prison. The bill also makes anyone convicted of attempted murder of an on-duty law-enforcement officer or fireman eligible for a life sentence without parole. The bill now goes back to the Senate for concurrence or conferencing.

House Democrats and Gov. Haley Barbour continue their war of public opinion regarding the Legislature's inability to re-authorize the Mississippi Department of Employment Security with either of two bills.

House Labor Committee Chairman Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, did not allow Senate Bill 2404 out of his committee because it would have removed the two-year re-authorization requirement of MDES, removing legislative oversight from the agency and putting the agency directly under the governor's control. It also did not contain language allowing the state to make use of $56.1 million in federal stimulus money for unemployed Mississippians. Democrats argue that the bill also does allow MDES to pay weekly benefits.

Barbour argues that House Democrats endangered thousands of unemployed Mississippians by refusing to pass the Senate bill re-authorizing MDES before the March 10 deadline, although he makes no mention of House Republicans' refusal to pass House Bill 1346—the House bill re-authorizing the agency while allowing the state to make use of the federal stimulus money—with the required three-fifths vote.

If the Legislature fails to re-authorize MDES by July, the U.S. Department of Labor will take over the collection of unemployment taxes from Mississippi businesses. Employers would lose a 5.4 percent credit against their Federal Unemployment Tax, resulting in a $413 million tax bill for Mississippi businesses.

Three options remain to keep MDES under Mississippi's purview: Labor Committee chairmen in both houses could suspend the rules to reintroduce their original bills, although the success of that will depend on a two-thirds approval vote by their respective chamber. Barbour could also call a special session on the issue, either after the legislative session or during the regular session.

The Senate passed a bill returning suffrage to people convicted of some non-violent felonies, including writing bad checks—an offense that tends to disproportionately affect the poor, women and minorities. House Bill 160 passed the Senate with a 31-to-15 vote, after multiple failures to get the bill out alive.

Under the new bill, an eligible convicted person—who must currently have a legislator champion his right of suffrage before the chamber—can ask for the court in which he or she was convicted to consider expunging the conviction five years after the successful completion of all terms and conditions of their sentence.

Other felonies suitable for expungement under the bill include shoplifting, false pretense and simple possession of drugs, among other offenses. The bill now goes back to the House for reconciliation, since the House passed a slightly different bill.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, let die a bill to strengthen the state's open-meetings law enforcement, arguing that small-town politicians can't afford the fines for violating open meetings laws and often don't have a lawyer to warn them of impending violations.

Senate Bill 2373 would have increased fines for violations of public-meetings laws up to $1,000 and placed the fines on individual violators, instead of forcing taxpayers to foot the bill. The city of Canton, where Blackmon lives and practices law, has been embroiled in several open-meetings law disputes, most recently with a citizens' group called Canton Quality of Life.

Canton resident James Cockrell attempted to videotape a Feb. 10 meeting of the city's Board of Aldermen, and Mayor William Truly ordered him to turn his camera off. Truly allowed Cockrell to record audio only. One week later Truly reversed course and announced a city policy of allowing video recording of city meetings. Canton's Board of Aldermen also came under scrutiny in 2008 for going into executive session to approve a $5,000 raise for board members and $10,000 raise for then-Mayor Fred Esco.

After weeks of sparring with House Democrats, Gov. Haley Barbour signed legislation Thursday restoring $82 million of the $458.5 million in spending cuts he made to the 2010 state budget. The money, recently approved by the House and Senate, replaces $37 million for K-12 education, as well as $33 million for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

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