Legislators off to slower start than usual

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 29, 2000

This year’s Mississippi legislative session is moving a bit more slowly than usual for Andrew Ketchings. The Republican, who represents District 95, said that because the session is a long one — 120 days as opposed to the usual 90 — the deadline for bills to be submitted is still a few weeks away.

&uot;It makes for a slow start,&uot; Ketchings said.

But Ketchings and Sen. Bob M. Dearing said committees have begun meeting, and issues are heating up the Capitol.

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Among the biggest battles in Jackson this year will be the budget — including funding for education — and the issue of open primaries, Dearing said.

Because state collections from corporate taxes are behind, Dearing said, legislators are concerned that educational leaders probably won’t get what they want this session.

&uot;If those (taxes) maintain until the end, folks won’t be cut, but they won’t get what they requested,&uot;&160;Dearing said.

That could hurt hopes for another teacher pay raise. &uot;It’s probably one of the top priorities among legislators,&uot; Dearing said of teacher raises. &uot;But there’s no sense passing a bill without the funding for it.&uot;

Ketchings agreed that raises are important, but the money just might not be there. &uot;Everyone’s committed to giving teachers a pay raise,&uot; he said. &uot;We’re just not sure how much money’s going to be available.&uot;

Dearing said salaries for community college and university teachers also have to be taken into consideration.

State Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez, could not be reached for comment Saturday, but he said earlier this month that he also wants to see state teachers get another raise this year.

Other issues before the Legislature this year include:

Open primaries. Secretary of State Eric Clark has asked lawmakers to consider again a bill to create open primaries in Mississippi. Louisiana already has open primaries.

Dearing said he supports the idea.

&uot;I think people ought to be able to vote for the people they want to vote for,&uot; he said. &uot;We’ve passed it twice, but each time the Justice Department has turned us down.&uot;

The U.S. Justice Department must preclear any changes in the election procedure in Mississippi.

&uot;Our bill tracked the Louisiana version exactly, except we changed the name to Mississippi,&uot; Dearing said.

Ketchings said open primaries would &uot;alleviate the problem we had with the governor’s race.&uot; Last November, neither new Gov. Ronnie Musgrove nor Mike Parker garnered the majority of the popular vote in the state, forcing the Legislature into an unprecedented vote in the gubernatorial race.

State law requires a statewide candidate to receive a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote to win an election.

Ketchings said the problem has resulted in several other bills being filed this year, including one that would provide for a runoff and one that would allow a candidate to win with a plurality of the vote.

Compulsory liability insurance for motorists. &uot;This is always a big issue,&uot; said Ketchings, who serves on the House insurance committee. &uot;I’m for it, but I think there needs to be teeth in the bill so that there are severe penalties for uninsured drivers.&uot;

Highway construction. Dearing has proposed a bill that would allow an entity such as a county or municipal government or corporation to pay for a scheduled four-lane project now, with the expectation that the state will pay the entity back when the project was scheduled to begin.

&uot;There are certain parts of the state that do have the money to do this,&uot; Dearing said, citing Biloxi, which wants to rebuild the Lorraine-Cowan Road from the coast.