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Mississippi legislature’s session continues

Gov. Haley Barbour delivered his final “State of the State” address Tuesday, urging legislators to spend wisely and calling for additional troopers on the roads and broadening access to quality education. He also announced plans to spend an expected $40-to-$50 million Medicaid surplus to place about 7,800 beneficiaries in home and community-based services.

His plan to use $7.3 million for a “trooper school” would place 100 new troopers on the road if legislators also move the motor carrier enforcement division from MDOT to the Department of Public Safety. Barbour outlined several proposals for legislators to consider in the current session, including expanding the charter school law to allow more children to benefit; making dual enrollment in high school and college courses easier so students can learn more and parents can save money on college credits earned; and locating the planned Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson near existing state history museums. A dispute has gone on for years over where to locate the shrine to the civil rights era.

Our House committees began meeting in earnest this week to begin studying the 3,000-plus bills that will be introduced by members. We are under a Feb. 1 deadline for the committees to approve or reject general bills and constitutional amendments, with a Feb. 10 House floor deadline for those bills.

The House judiciary A committee and full House passed HB 510, similar to an initiative on the eminent domain issue that will appear on the November general election ballot. It would permit taking private property only for public use and provide compensation for relocation expenses if necessary to the property owner. Eminent domain could not be used for private development, to enhance tax revenue or transfer to a person or group unless it is for a state-sponsored economic development project.

The head of the state retirement system assured the House appropriations committee that the system is safe and secure, despite some talk otherwise. Its assets were $17.2 billion as of Dec. 31 and the positive investment return for 2010 was just over 14 percent — compared to a minus 19.4 percent in 2009 and a minus 8.2 percent in 2008. Investment return was 15-percent-plus the last six months of 2010. Investment returns constitute 49 percent of the system’s revenues, while employer and employee contributions make up the remainder.

The House juvenile justice committee had a hearing for Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Authority to request that a reinvestigation be conducted to answer whether or not there are civil rights violations at the facility. Also, there were concerns that former inmates are denied the chance to be productive citizens because they are constantly being labeled as convicted felons.

The House banking and financial services committee heard from religious leaders and the payday lending industry on whether new legislation was needed to eliminate high interest rates charged to consumers. The religious group said the high rates charged by lenders put an extra burden on the state’s poor, while the industry group said they presented often the only option for borrowing, a view refuted by some who testified. The religious group included leaders of several different denominations.

Judiciary A panel and full House also passed HB 551, known as Nathan’s Law, to enhance penalties against motorists who fail to stop for a stopped school bus. In a death case, the sentence could range up to 20 years. The bill says you do not need to stop if a child departs a bus on the opposite lanes of a four-lane road. Failure to stop for a bus on two lanes is $750 first offense and $1,500 for a second one.

We got a briefing from state fiscal leaders, who said the national and state economies “are recovering, but not recovered.” They expect a stronger 2011 economy than in 2010. Retail sales are expected to improve, although consumers remain largely frugal.

A state treasury report shows the state owes $3.786 billion in bonded indebtedness, compared to $589 million 20 years ago and $2.268 billion 10 years ago. We owe 31.1 percent of the constitutional debt limit of $12.1 billion. The legislature issues general obligation bonds to construct and improve certain state-owned properties and to create new jobs such as those at Nissan and the new Toyota plant soon to be in production.

Rep. Angela Cockerham is a Democrat representing Adams, Amite, Pike and Wilkinson counties in the Mississippi legislature.

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