By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers beat a deadline Thursday and cleared out of the Capitol ahead of a winter storm that promised to dump snow on many parts of the state.
“This is, strangely enough, when I appreciate all of you the most,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said as he thanked senators for several long days in which they considered hundreds of bills.
After a three-day weekend, lawmakers will return to work Monday afternoon.
Legislators are approaching the midpoint of their scheduled three-month session, and Thursday was the final day for the House and Senate to consider bills filed in their own chamber. The surviving bills move to the opposite chamber for more work.
Separate bills that passed both chambers Thursday would strengthen the penalties for stalking. Aggravated stalking would become a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $3,000 fine; punishment for aggravated stalking for someone with a previous record as a sex offender would be up to six years in prison and a $4,000 fine.
The House removed provisions that would have allowed stalking charges to be filed if someone threatens the life of a pet to intimidate a human victim. Some House members said they worried neighbors would file stalking charges over arguments about one person’s dog going into another person’s yard.
Among the bills that died Thursday was a proposal to move the Mississippi School of the Arts from Brookhaven to the Mississippi University for Women campus in Columbus, about 200 miles to the north.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said the state could save money by putting the arts school at MUW, where the Mississippi School for Math and Science is located. The two residential high schools attract some of the state’s highest achieving students, who have to pass tests to be admitted.
As legislators rushed to meet Thursday’s deadline ahead of expected snow and sleet, Stringer didn’t bring the arts school bill up for debate — and that killed the bill.
Brookhaven civic promoters have lobbied to keep the arts school, and in 2009 the House had a long debate before killing a bill that would have moved the school to MUW.
With snow and sleet approaching Mississippi on Thursday, the House and Senate skipped some bills that chairmen knew would create time-consuming debates. The Senate, for example, ignored a voter-identification bill and let it die.
Lawmakers have argued for more than a decade about whether to require people to show ID. The Mississippi Republican Party announced Thursday that it had collected enough signatures to put a voter-ID question on the November 2011 ballot. People would decide whether every voter should be required to show a driver’s license or other government-issued ID at the polls.
Supporters say voter ID would deter fraud, while opponents say there’s little proof that people are voting under others’ names. Opponents also say an ID requirement could be used to intimidate older black people who once were subject to Jim Crow laws that prevented them from voting.
The bills are Senate Bill 2961, House Bill 1309, House Bill 599 and Senate Bill 2871.