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Lawmakers offer updates on 2006 legislative session

Area legislators fielded a wide variety of questions rangingfrom biodiesel usage to human cloning to education during thismorning’s Wesson Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a member of the SenateAgricultural Committee, took up a question about the fate of abiodiesel bill.

“In its original form, everyone would have to use 2 percentbiodiesel,” said Hyde-Smith, of Brookhaven. “It’s a positive thingfor agriculture.”

The bill would have greatly expanded the market for soybeans,Hyde-Smith said, and it would serve Mississippi well to be on theleading edge of the alternative fuel movement. Biodiesel wouldprovide a cheaper fuel source while being better for theenvironment.

“That is definitely where this industry is headed,” she said.”We have got to find alternative fuels, which is something thepresident committed to in his State of the Union address.”

The bill bogged down amid objections from the oil industry,however, and is presently under reconsideration, she said.

“I do plan to carry that torch forward for (the farmers),”Hyde-Smith said.

Lawmakers offered differing assessments of what was likely themost unusual question of the session when they were asked aboutbills in both houses that would ban human cloning.

District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett, of Brookhaven, explained thatHouse Bill 1202, which was passed in the House, would prohibithuman cloning in the state for any reason.

District 36 Sen. Lynn Posey was skeptical, however, that theSenate will even debate the merits of the House bill.

“Given the Senate bill did not survive, I don’t think they’lltake up the House bill,” said Posey, of Union Church.

In answer to another question, District 76 Greg Holloway, ofHazlehurst, said he was “100 percent behind” the concept ofsplitting tax dollars generated by casinos among all counties. Headmitted, though, it would be “difficult to sell” this year withall the damage along the Gulf Coast caused by HurricaneKatrina.

“I will certainly do my part to see that done,” he said.

Education was a topic that generated a lot of interest duringthe event at Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s Thames Center.

In answer to a question on whether higher education couldpossibly see an increase in funding this year, District 62 Rep. TomWeathersby, of Florence, said it was difficult to tell.

Legislators will begin considering appropriations bill laterthis week. However, Weathersby said there are signs of hope.

“Higher education has really been hit the last few years. That’san area that’s probably been hit harder than anywhere else,” hesaid.

The House is working on a bill that would provide $50 millionfor community colleges, he said, but it is far from complete orcertain.

The odds of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP,passing both chambers with full funding are rather slim, thelegislators said.

“I really don’t think the MAEP formula will be fully-funded thisyear,” Holloway predicted.

However, Holloway said a bill that has already gone into lawwould ensure “every school will get more money whether MAEP isfully-funded or not,” because the new formula pays a higher baserate per pupil than the old formula. The Adequate Daily Attendanceappropriation is one area of MAEP that can not be altered and mustalways be fully-funded, he said.

When legislators were asked whether the Mississippi School ofthe Arts would see an increase this year to allow for morestudents, Barnett did not hedge in his answer.

“No, I think the funding will be just like it was last year,” hesaid.

Although there is no planned increase, Barnett was optimistic.He reiterated that at least lawmakers were not debating whether theschool should be funded – as has happened in previous years – andthat the school was receiving enough of an appropriation to operatenormally.

Posey, chairman of the Senate’s Wildlife, Fisheries and ParksCommittee, adroitly dodged a question asking for his stance on aproposed pilot program that would allow hunting over corn-baitedfields.

“The Senate has been debating this topic for years,” he said.”The Senate will be discussing this bill for the next twoweeks.”

Dr. Howell Garner, Co-Lin’s president and the event moderator,reminded Posey that the question was about his stance on the billand asked if he would like to address that part of thequestion.

“I just did,” Posey said.

During closing remarks, Hyde-Smith said there were a lot ofquestions legislators simply could not answer at this time.Prospective bills have only just transferred from one chamber tothe other and legislators are still reviewing them.

“There are very few conclusive things we can stand here and tellyou today,” she said.