Lawmakers arguing over length of ’08 session, other rules

Published 7:11 pm Wednesday, January 16, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Voters who wanted quick and dramatic change in Mississippi government must be sorely disappointed.

Lawmakers are in their second week at the state Capitol and they’re still arguing about their own internal rules of operation, including the length of this session.

Until the House and Senate agree on the rules, members can’t start the substantial work they were elected to do — things like shaping education policy, paying for Medicaid or considering economic development plans.

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Adoption of the rules could affect the public’s ability to get information about the budget and other issues.

The new Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, says he is proposing changes that could peel away layers of secrecy in the legislative process.

“This would be the biggest open-government change we’ve seen up here in years,” Nunnelee said Wednesday at the Capitol.

One change would set the budget-writing deadline several days earlier. The final versions of budget bills would be filed on the last Wednesday of the session, and the two chambers would start voting on those bills two days later. They’d have to finish the process by the following Monday.

For years, lawmakers’ deadline to file budget bills has been on the final Saturday of the session, then both chambers would start voting on the bills the next day and would have to complete the process by Monday.

Setting an earlier deadline would give lawmakers, and the public, more time to study the final versions of spending bills. And it would put a dent in the last-minute, behind-the-scenes wrangling that gives the Appropriations chairmen their power and keeps lobbyists employed.

The other proposed change to the legislative rules would require the final version of all bills to show the parts of state law that could be deleted. Now, legislators receive copies of bills that have asterisks where provisions are being deleted. A single set of asterisks — ……… — could stand for one word or for entire pages of law.

The Senate approved both of the proposed rules changes last week. The House on Wednesday approved the earlier deadline for the budget bills but rejected the change that would kill the asterisks.

The Senate has voted to shorten this 125-day legislative session to 104 days. The House has voted to shorten it to 103.

The two sides must agree on the same set of rules before any changes can be made.

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, argued Wednesday that showing the proposed deletions rather than asterisks in bills would help all lawmakers understand the potential impact of their votes. He said that after 12 years in the Legislature, seeing asterisks in a bill is “one of the parts of the process that scares me the most.”

Rep. Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, said showing the proposed deletions in state law could create more work for the legislative staff and could confuse rather than help lawmakers.

Traditionally, committee chairmen in the House and Senate have explained to members what would be deleted from state law when asterisks appear in bills.

“I personally think what we’ve been doing for many, many years works,” said Warren, who has been in the House since 1980.

House and Senate leaders both say that shortening the 2008 legislative session could save money, but they disagree on the amount.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said last week that cutting 21 days off the session would save $500,000. Warren said Wednesday that legislative staffers told him the savings would be closer to $100,000.

This is the first year of the four-year term. The first year’s legislative session is usually 125 days to give new officials time to learn their jobs. Sessions in the second, third and fourth years are 90 days.

The last time Mississippi had a governor returning for a second term, legislators shortened the first year’s session. That was in 1996.