Miss. legislative session off to saunter, not trot

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers prayed, listened to patriotic music and exchanged plenty of hugs and handshakes on the opening day of their 2013 session. Bills were just starting to appear on a newly revamped legislative website and most members did little actual work.

There will be plenty of time during the three-month gathering to pick apart proposals that would affect education, health care and other issues.

Both sides are preparing for protracted debates about whether to allow development of charter schools, which would be free of many state regulations. Charters would receive public money but could be run by nonprofit corporations or boards. Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republican leaders consider charters a priority, but many Democrats say they’re firmly opposed because they believe public schools are receiving too little state financial support.

“You can feel the tension about it already,” said Rep. David Myers, D-McComb.

Myers said he opposes charter schools because he sees them as a hybrid between public and private education and he believes they’d drain money from existing public schools that are already underfunded. Bryant and other supporters say charters would allow for academic innovation.

Legislators are expected to consider putting extra emphasis on teaching reading skills in the early elementary grades, but they’ve released few details about how they might approach the issue.

Health advocates want lawmakers to expand Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands more people, but Bryant and other Republican leaders say the state can’t afford to do it. Starting in January 2014, the expansion is allowed — but not required — under the federal health care law President Barack Obama signed in 2010. The governor says he doesn’t want to do anything to encourage the use of the federal law.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Mississippi should expand Medicaid because doing so would help people who can’t afford private coverage. He said billions of federal dollars also would provide an economic boost.

“The question is: Are the benefits of the health care law going to come to Mississippi, or are we going to pay for health care for people in other states?” Bryan said.

In 2012, legislators debated a bill that would have allowed law enforcement officers to check people’s immigration status during traffic stops or other encounters. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate after business groups and local government officials said they worried about the cost.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said he’s filing immigration enforcement bills this year that are more narrowly focused. One would require state workers to check a federal database for the immigration status of people who apply for public assistance.

“I don’t see us passing one huge package this year,” McDaniel said of immigration proposals.

This is the second year of a four-year term for lawmakers. One new House member took his oath of office Tuesday. Republican Bill Kinkade of Byhalia won a special election in late November to succeed longtime Rep. Tommy Woods, R-Byhalia, who resigned in District 52 in parts of DeSoto and Marshall counties.

There are some vacancies in the Legislature, for now.

House Speaker Philip Gunn announced during the opening of the session that Rep. David Gibbs, a 76-year-old Democrat from West Point, had resigned immediately because of poor health. Gibbs had been in the House since 1993. The governor will set a special election House District 36 in parts of Clay, Lowndes and Monroe counties.

A special election was being held Tuesday in House District 59 in northern Rankin County. Second-term Republican Kevin McGee resigned in November to settle a state ethics case.

Two Senate seats are open because Democrats Bennie Turner of West Point and Alice Harden of Jackson died late last year.

The election in Turner’s District 16 is Jan. 15 in parts of Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties.

A Feb. 5 election is set in Harden’s District 28 in parts of Hinds County, and nine candidate signed up to run.

Runoffs, if needed, are three weeks after the first election.

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Online:

Mississippi Legislature: http://www.legislature.ms.gov/Pages/default.aspx