Miss. bills reflect priorities of GOP majority

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers are sponsoring bills to tighten restrictions on abortion, crack down on immigration, expand the use of charter schools and limit the power of the attorney general.

Monday was the deadline to file general bills and constitutional amendments to be considered during the 2012 session, which began in early January and is scheduled to end in early May.

Committees now face a March 6 deadline to act on general bills or constitutional amendments filed in each chamber. The House committees will consider House bills, and the Senate committees will consider Senate bills. The proposals that survive committee work will move on for debate in the full chamber.

There are later deadlines to file and pass money bills.

Bills that are moving through the House and Senate, so far, largely reflect the priorities of Republicans who control both chambers. The GOP has controlled the Senate in recent years, and it won control of the House in the general election last November.

The House Democratic leader, Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, said Monday that about 600 bills had been filed by late Sunday. He said roughly 1,200 to 1,500 general bills were filed in many previous years.

“We’re going to have a very trim session, it appears,” Moak said at a forum sponsored by Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to vote Tuesday on a bill to allow the widespread development of charter schools, which are public schools that have greater flexibility to set different operating hours or to try different academic approaches. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, said he expects the full Senate to vote on the charter bill this week.

“It is my view that charter schools are not some panacea. They’re not going to solve all of our educational challenges overnight,” Reeves told reporters Monday. “They are simply another tool in the toolbox to improve education attainment levels in Mississippi.”

House Bill 488, by Republican Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven and 14 other House members, would require public schools to determine students’ immigration status. It also would allow law enforcement officers to check people’s immigration status during traffic stops or other encounters. And, it would require immigrants to carry papers showing that they’re in the U.S. legally; failure to do so would be a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine and 20-30 days in jail.

House Bill 211, by Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton and 40 other House members, would limit the attorney general’s power by allowing other statewide elected officials and appointed state agency directors to hire private attorneys without getting approval from the attorney general. The current attorney general, Jim Hood, is the only Democrat remaining in statewide office. The bill passed the House last Wednesday and been held for another possible round of debate in that chamber.

Among the anti-abortion proposals:

— House Bill 857, sponsored by Republican Rep. Alex Monsour of Vicksburg, is called the “pain-capable unborn child protection act.” It would ban abortion starting at 20 weeks’ gestation unless the pregnant woman is in danger of dying or faces “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment.” The standard gestation for a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks.

— House Concurrent Resolution 61, by Republican Reps. Andy Gipson of Braxton, William Tracy Arnold of Booneville and Chris Brown of Aberdeen and Democratic Rep. Tom Miles of Forest, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would define “person” as “all human beings from conception to natural death.” It is similar to a life-at-fertilization constitutional amendment rejected by 58 percent of voters last November, although it appears to address some concerns raised by opponents last year. The resolution says the new proposal could not be construed to prohibit in-vitro fertilization, life-saving medical procedures or “contraceptives or other methods of birth control that do not kill a person.”

— Senate Concurrent Resolution 555, by Republican Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, is a proposed constitutional amendment that says it would be the policy of Mississippi to “protect the life of every unborn child from conception to birth, to the extent permitted by the federal Constitution.” Although Fillingane is proposing the conception-to-birth amendment, he told The Associated Press last week that he does not expect legislators to consider putting it on the ballot this year. He said he filed it simply as a place-holder in case some lawmakers want to debate it.