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Redistricting is focus in Jackson now

Legislative attention in the House of Representatives returned to general lawmaking this week as we entered the final four weeks of the 2011 session.

After passage of the House redistricting plan last week, we were back considering general bills that originated in the Senate with a deadline of Wednesday for first floor action.

Also on the agenda during the session’s 10th week were bills that had been considered in each chamber, had seen some changes made and then returned to the chamber of origin for concurrence. If we did not concur with the changes made by the Senate, we “invited conference” with the Senate. However, if we did concur with their changes, we sent those bills on to the governor.

The House passed its own redistricting plan 66-56 late last week. DeSoto County was awarded a new district seat due to its spiraling growth. We then sent the plan to the Senate, where the Senate Elections Committee early this week voted down the House bill. The Senate was expected to begin consideration of several plans for its own redistricting later in the week.

If an agreement is not reached between the two chambers on the plans, federal authorities could take over the process and draw the plans for us. And, of course, there are always interested parties threatening to sue over redistricting plans. We had hoped to get this done so we could have one set of legislative elections to be held this year, but it now seems possible that we could run this year in current districts and then again next year in new districts, costly to all.

The redistricting process began last August when the Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee held the first of 12 pre-session public hearings across the state. These discussions continued as the committee held four additional meetings in February at sites around the state.

As for “regular” lawmaking this week, the House concurred with Senate changes on quite a number of bills and sent them on to Gov. Haley Barbour for his consideration. Included were: HB 364 authorizing another round of rural fire truck acquisition for counties and cities; HB 636 requiring students transferring from a home school to a public school to possibly have to take a test to determine the grade and class to decide where the student will be assigned; HB 1195 to regulate the business of purchasing gold and other precious items for re-sale; HB 768 designating the first weekend of June as “Free Fishing Weekend” and July 4 of each year as “Free Saltwater Sports Fishing Day.” Anyone may saltwater sport fish without a license on “Free Saltwater Sports Fishing Day” and during “Free Fishing Weekend.”

Also: HB 1158 transferring Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium  to Jackson State University, subject to an agreement reached by the state, Jackson State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center; if JSU builds its football venue elsewhere, the property returns to Medical Center control; and HB 1161 offering reimbursements to filmmakers for per diem and housing allowance costs they incur in the production of movies in Mississippi, a move that should enhance the state’s incentive program and bring more movie production here.

Just as we in the House voted to concur with changes on some Senate bills, we also declined to accept them on some other bills and “invited conference,” meaning three representatives and three senators will try to hammer out a compromise suitable to both bodies. Some of the bills on which we invited conference were: HB 826 concerning appeals in the certificate-of-need process for health care facilities; HB 641 providing penalties for sexual involvement of school employees with students; HB 644 concerning procedures and sanctions imposed under the school district conservatorship law; HB 1163 directing state education leaders to recommend creation of an “early college high school” program; and HB 1220 creating a state healthcare exchange under the new federal healthcare legislation.

Among the Senate-originated general bills we passed this week were: SB 2192 requiring safety lights on timber haulers whose product extends more than four feet beyond the end of the truck; and SB 2196 requiring ATV drivers under the age of 16 to get training and wear helmets when traversing public lands.

The Senate this week agreed with House sentiment and put more money into K-12 public education than that body’s leadership corps had wanted. The Senate’s K-12 spending plans agreed with the House on a $2.3 billion budget, with more than $2 billion for the MAEP plan.

The House did something this week that is rare: We honored someone in a resolution who never lived in the state. However, House Resolution 50 speaks for itself in that it honors the life of West Virginian Frank Buckles, the last known surviving member of World War I, who died recently.

We also honored the memory of Robert Johnson on what would be the bluesman’s 100th birthday. Johnson is considered by many to be the “father of the Delta blues.”

Rep. Robert Johnson is a Democrat from Natchez representing Adams County in the Mississippi legislature.

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