Abortion feud hauls leaders back to Jackson

Published 11:20 pm Friday, April 23, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers on Friday finished most of their business for the 2010 session as the Senate passed the final version of a bill requiring public employees to pay more toward their own retirement.

While the Senate left the Capitol, the House is returning at 8 a.m. Saturday because disgruntled Republicans held up two budget bills to try to force a vote on an unrelated abortion measure.

A bill sponsored by Republican Sens. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo and Billy Hewes of Gulfport would ban public funding of abortion once all parts of a federal health care law are enacted in 2014. The bill says abortion coverage could not be offered by any Mississippi health insurance exchange created under the federal health law.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Friday that Mississippi already has a law banning public funding of abortion and there’s no need for another one.

‘‘This is a political statement of a senator running for United States Congress, and I don’t have to put up with it, God bless him,’’ Holland said.

Nunnelee is running for a U.S. House seat in northern Mississippi’s 1st District, and faces two candidates in the June 1 GOP primary.

Shortly after the anti-abortion bill passed the Senate Public Health Committee on Friday, the Nunnelee campaign issued a news release saying: ‘‘Senator Nunnelee just passed a bill out of committee that will prohibit Mississippi from spending any state or federal funds on abortions as provided in Obamacare.’’

The bill passed the Senate with little debate and no opposition.

Nunnelee said in an interview later that he’s not sure when the federal law would require health exchanges to be established.

‘‘I think it’s very important that Mississippi go on record as saying we don’t want any taxpayer dollars spent to abort children in this state,’’ Nunnelee said. ‘‘And I cannot imagine anybody that would put politics over protecting children.’’

After Holland told the House that he wouldn’t bring the abortion bill up for a vote, Republican Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton put a procedural hold budget bills for Medicaid and the Department of Human Services. Neither bill includes abortion funding, but Gunn held them to force the House to return to the Capitol on Saturday so he can try to seek a vote on the abortion measure.

Holland said he won’t change his mind. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House to circumvent the chairman and force a vote on a bill. That’s a tough margin to reach because many lawmakers traditionally are reluctant to go against any chairman’s wishes, even if they want a certain bill.

The public employees’ pension passed the Senate 28-16 Friday. It goes to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who’s expected to sign it into law because he requested it.

For two years starting July 1, educators and employees of state and local governments would have to put 9 percent of their pay into the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System. That’s up from the current 7.25 percent.

Barbour said Thursday that if workers don’t pay more into their own pension, more state tax dollars would be needed to keep the fund solvent. Opponents said some workers are struggling, and the pension change amounts to a pay cut.

‘‘This ton of bricks is being dropped on the heads of teachers and state employees and people in the retirement system,’’ said Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said the change is needed, even though it will mean less take-home pay for public employees.

‘‘They will have more held out of their check than they do now,’’ Kirby said. ‘‘But at least they have a job.’’