Session starts Tuesday

Published 11:14 pm Sunday, January 6, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — The 2008 Mississippi Legislature convenes on Tuesday and one of the first orders of business will be the election of a new House speaker.

Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, who has served as speaker for the past four years, is challenged by Rep. Jeff Smith, D-Columbus, a conservative with strong Republican support.

The winner will preside over the 122-member chamber and exert influence over the fate of legislation for the next four years.

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In the Senate, Lt. Gov.-elect Phil Bryant, who served as state auditor before winning election to Mississippi’s second highest post last year, is expected to name committee chairmen soon after taking office.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck will open the Senate session Tuesday and will wrap up eight years in office when Bryant is officially sworn in on Thursday at a joint session.

In the House, McCoy and Smith have both said they have enough votes to win. There are 75 Democrats in the House and 47 Republicans.

The session is scheduled for 120 days and no work is expected to begin until after Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is inaugurated to his second term on Jan. 15.

Lawmakers will have about four months to adopt a spending plan for the state for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Barbour has said that the budget will be the main issue of the session.

A budget proposal from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee recommended level or reduced funding for most state agencies, but also gave lawmakers about $140 million to spend in the fiscal year starting July 1.

“As usual, several departments have asked for as much or more money for increases in their budget than the whole increase for the state,” Barbour said, citing K-12 public education and the university system.

In the early weeks of the session, lawmakers also will be asked to approve deficit appropriations to keep some agencies running through the current year. One of the largest requests will come from the Division of Medicaid.

Medicaid officials said the program i facing an $87 million shortfall for the current year, and has asked for $168 million in extra funding for fiscal year 2009.

Funding the program would be priority for the House, said McCoy.

“We’re going to do our very best to fund Medicaid at the level that is required for the state of Mississippi. It’s just right at the top with education as our funding priorities,” McCoy said.

Bryant was waiting to see Barbour’s funding suggestions.

“The Division of Medicaid is part of the governor’s office and we are aware that they are working diligently, to address internally, the funding shortage prior to finalizing their request for legislative action,” said Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock.