Beating the Same Drums | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Beating the Same Drums

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The first week of the legislative session, which started Jan. 4, brought the beginning of bill submissions seeking to beat the Legislature's Jan. 17 deadline for general bills and constitutional amendments.

Leading the pack on new sources of revenue is Cleveland Democrat Sen. Willie Simmons' bill to create a state lottery that dedicates its funding to the state's universities and junior colleges, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, and the Departments of Public Safety, Transportation and Revenue.

Lottery bills generally die in committee, despite difficult state-tax revenue shortfalls for the last five years. Gov. Haley Barbour' stated last year that he did not favor a lottery for moral reasons.

"I am comfortable licensing gaming, but I don't like the idea of the state actually being in the game," Barbour told the Associated Press during the 2010 legislative session.

Seeking to claim a moral victory of a different nature, Sens. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, and John Horhn, D-Jackson, are both submitting bills creating a sex-education pilot program for the state. Look for Republicans to kill Horhn's SB 2135 and Jordan's SB 2222 bill, if events pan out like last year. Republicans have typically smashed proposals to create a sex-education program, arguing that sex education should be up to parents. Program advocates argue that many parents aren't performing this role, which contributes to Mississippi's high teen-pregnancy rate. Both await votes in the Senate Education Committee.

Clean energy is a topic again this year, as it has been in past sessions. Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, is looking to create the state's first electricity net-metering buy-back program, where residents with solar- or wind-based electricity generators can sell the excess energy they generate back to power companies at a rate that will offset their renewable energy investment. Tollison's SB 2201 is headed for the Senate Public Utilities Committee.

Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, is looking to pass a resolution, SCR 504, pressing the U.S. Congress to get with a nationwide energy program to promote the development of renewable energy. Baria's argument is that the U.S. spends $1 billion a day to import oil, and that renewable-energy programs will promote national and local job growth.

The issue of crime-fighting is on the table this year. The state currently has a weak law against attempted crimes, specifically murder—an issue that makes prosecutors furious and occasionally hobbles them when they try to work plea deals with suspects. Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage, is chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and submitted HB 410 to the Judiciary A Committee. Malone's bill creates an attempted-murder charge with a minimum penalty of 30 years imprisonment on conviction.

Rankin County Assistant District Attorney Dan Duggan told the JFP last Friday that the 30-year prison penalty would add another tool in the prosecutorial arsenal and offer power to district attorneys in their push for plea bargains. Duggan said the closest charge prosecutors have to attempted murder is an aggravated-assault charge that carries only a 10-year maximum prison sentence.

The voter-identification issue will be back in committee this year, as it has many times before. Rep. Bill Denny, R-Jackson, is submitting two bills that, if passed, would require voters to present state-issued photo identification at the polling booth. Denny's bill, HB 237, allows voters to substitute a U.S. passport, student identification card or employee identification card in lieu of a state-issued driver's license or non-driver's identification card.

Denny also wants photo identification to be a factor in absentee voting. His HB 233, would require mail-in absentee ballots to contain a copy of a valid government-issued identification—the same photo-identification cards referenced in HB 237.

"If after opening the envelope, no copy of a current, valid government-issued photo identification for which proof of citizenship is required, is found, the commissioner or executive committee shall write across the face of the envelope ‘rejected' giving the reason therefore, and the registrar shall promptly notify the voter of its rejection," Denny's bill states.

Groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU may fight voter ID bills should they survive the House Apportionment and Elections Committee. Both groups claim that African Americans and senior citizens frequently own no state-issued ID and that voter ID presents another hurdle in the election process.

The House Apportionment and Election Committee, of which African Americans hold considerable influence, rarely allows such bills to pass, however.

Other bills likely to die this year include one by Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, to prohibit smoking in most public places, from bingo houses to retail stores. House Bill 131, which is based upon the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke," also prohibits smoking in the state's more historically smoke-friendly environments, including casinos and bars.

The powerful casino lobby, among others, will likely target the bill should it pass the Public Health and Human Services Committee.

Another bill sure to stir argument is Picayune Republican Rep. Mark Formby's HB 405. The bill allows churchgoers to carry their firearms into church, if the church so allows. The measure excludes the permit expansion to people who have a history of drug abuse or mental problems, among other issues.

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