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Lawmakers doubt quick end for session

Lincoln County lawmakers predicted a quick start to a specialsession on tort reform and voter identification that beginsWednesday, but they were less certain on when the session wouldconclude.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett expected lawmakers would be insession only about 15 minutes and then recess for committee work onthe legislative topics.

“I’m concerned about this,” Barnett said. “I think we’re justgoing to drag on like we did two years ago.”

Barnett referred to an 83-day session in 2002 in which lawmakersaccomplished some reforms in the state’s civil justice system. Gov.Haley Barbour, though, has called lawmakers back to address furtherreforms.

The governor and the Senate have supported a $250,000 cap on allnon-economic damages while the House has opposed lowering the$500,000 limit arrived at during the earlier special session.

Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was also skeptical about a quickend to the session. She said Barbour had estimated a five-daysession that could conclude by May 25.

“I think he’s being very optimistic,” Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith said lawmakers have vivid memories of the 2002special session. She said she was taking a wait-and-see approach tothe one this year.

“Hopefully, we won’t be there all summer,” Hyde-Smith said.

Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak questioned the scope of the reformsthat are being sought.

“I believe everything should be on the table,” Moak said.

During the discussion of caps, Moak suggested the possibility ofrepealing those already in place. Also, he said sovereign immunity,business reform and insurance reform should also be up fordiscussion.

Moak referred to recent comments from the insurance industryurging lawmakers to wait and see how the 2002 reform affects thestate.

“Nobody seems to want to heed that advice,” Moak said.

Moak said California has been used as a model in the pursuit oftort reform. However, he said no reforms worked in that state untilinsurance rate caps were instituted.

“The governor and big business want us to reform our systemusing such states as California and Florida as models,” Moak said.”Maybe it’s time we took them at their word and give them all thereforms needed, including reforming insurance and rates charged toconsumers.”

Moak said other issues, such as disclosure of lawsuitsettlements by corporations and others, will also be on thetable.

Citizens can expect the House to pass consumer-friendly tortreform issues, Moak said. The matter is “not just about limitingimmunity for certain groups,” he said.

“It’s also about giving citizens access to information,” Moaksaid.

While tort reform has received the most attention, Barbour’sagenda for the special session also includes voter identification.Unlike one passed in the regular session, the governor has urgedpassage of a measure that includes no exemptions for certaingroups.

Barnett questioned Barbour’s inclusion of the voter ID measure.He said the issue is not as critical as tort reform and could beaddressed in a regular session.

“It ought to have been kept to just tort reform,” Barnettsaid.

Moak said he had no feel for how the voter ID measure woulddevelop.

“There’s been such back and forth on that,” Moak said.

Hyde-Smith was hopeful that Barbour would expand the specialsession call to include a bond bill that failed in final hours ofthe regular session. Negotiators from the House and Senate couldnot agree on the bill and the measure died in conference.

Hyde-Smith said the bill included $20 million for the state’slocal bridge repair program and $1.4 million for a new NationalGuard armory in Monticello. The senator said the bridge repair billwas especially important for counties like Lincoln County.

“Lincoln County relies on that and utilizes it to the fullest,”Hyde-Smith said.