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PSN on May 15, 2008 - 10:18am
While the Mississippi Legislature adjourned its regular session in April after approving a $5 billion budget, lawmakers will be back in the Capitol soon for a special session to address unresolved legislation, including Medicaid funding woes and keeping the Department of Employment Security open. With a session dominated by attacks on immigrants, multiple attempts to suppress voting, and giveaways to state utility companies, the positive accomplishments of the legislature during the short 2008 legislative session were limited.
Educationwas one priority for state legislators this session with HB 513 authorizing full funding for the state's public schools, the first time such legislation has passed in a non-election year.
- SB 2176 approved incremental salary increases for teachers with 25 years of service, which may help slow the exodus of experienced teachers.
- SB 2149 strengthened accountability measures for school superintendents from under-performing districts.
Ethic reformswere passed to hold politicians and judges more accountable to the public.
- SB 2983, a monumental Ethics Reform bill, expands the information required on the statements of economic interest that are filed with the state Ethics Commission, increases the number of public officials who must file the statements, and gives the Commission authority to levy a daily fine on persons who fail to file a report. The public will be able to view the statements on the Commission’s website beginning in 2010.
- SB 2571 strengths education and competency requirements for Justice Court judges. Judges must now pass a competency exam before taking the bench. Additionally, judges pay will be increased to match that of county supervisors and the court’s civil jurisdiction will be raised from $2,500 to $3,500.
On the other hand, the bad bills debated and passed by the legislature consumed the session:
Anti-Immigrant Legislation: The legislature approved SB 2988, which requires companies to use E-Verify to check the citizenship status of their employees. The law allows any law enforcement agency to arrest unauthorized workers, who will then face felony charges, no access to bail, and jail time from one to five years and fines from $1,000 to $10,000. Their employers, on the other hand, may become ineligible for public contracts for up to 3 years and/or lose their business permit for up to 1 year. While Governor Haley Barbour signed the bill, even he noted that "the federal government itself has said E-Verify is not a reliable system" and emphasized that small employers are exempt until 2011.
Bad energy legislation: SB 2793 gives utility regulators the power to authorize gradual rate increases for customers as Mississippi Power plans a new continuously-operating, clean coal-burning plant. Previously, the Public Service Commission allowed utility companies such as Mississippi Power to increase rates to recoup building costs only when it "flips the switch" on new plants. This bill not only puts an unfair burden on Mississippi rate payers to fund a plant that will also serve other states, but is a step backwards for environmentalist.
Voter Suppression: Mississippi was embroiled in debate over an ever-changing omnibus election law bill all session. Against the backdrop of a scandal where one election official, acting without authorization, purged approximately 10,000 voters from the rolls in a single county, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann lobbied hard for legislation that would de-register any voter who did not vote in the upcoming presidential election. He also supported HB 969, which would have greatly expanded the disenfranchisement of felons in the state. In the end, the only bill that passed, SB 2510, merely authorized a study of election law to be completed by the end of the year, allowed curbside voting by physically disabled voters, and slightly tightened absentee ballot procedures. There was also a strong push for a voter ID bill, which eventually died when the House refused to take it up. Without a doubt it has been a year of struggle for supporters of voting rights in Mississippi, but their efforts have paid off as they were able to thwart a series of attacks on voters in their state.
Missed Opportunity on Toxic Toys: Governor Barbour also vetoed a bill to protect children from lead in toys. HB 1240, passed by the state's legislature, would have required that any manufacturer who sells children’s toys that do not adhere to federal standards could be in violation of the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act. It also says the state attorney general should keep a running list of toys that are found to be defective.