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Lawmakers offer 2006 session review

Few questions were asked of lawmakers following their in-depthreview of the 2006 session today at the Brookhaven-Lincoln CountyChamber of Commerce Legislative Forum.

“It turned out a lot better than I anticipated. I truly expectedus to be in trouble following Katrina,” said District 92 Rep. Dr.Jim Barnett about the session that concluded early last month.

However, with $200 million more than estimated in income and thesteady stream of federal funding to assist in hurricane recovery,Barnett said lawmakers were really able to manage Katrina issuesquickly and concentrate on other topics.

The larger budget allowed lawmakers to allocate 62 percent ofthe total budget to education while increasing the pay ofapproximately 31,000 state employees by at least $1,500, Barnettsaid.

The state allocated more than $67 million to education than inprevious years, said District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. She addedit was more funding for education than ever before in Mississippihistory.

The state also passed a measure to fully fund the operations ofseven mental health crisis centers, including one in Brookhaven.The bill freed monies being held by the Department ofAdministration and Finance for the construction of the Brookhavencenter, Barnett said.

In other issues confronted by the state, he said lawmakerspassed legislation to expand firearms rights, ban smoking in publicbuildings and purchase thousands of voting machines to update thestate’s election process. A $382 million bond bill that includedconstruction on many of the state universities and communitycolleges and funding for the B.B. King Museum was alsoapproved.

Lawmakers did not pass two controversial bills, however.

Barnett said he supported a bill to lower grocery taxes whileincreasing cigarette taxes, but did not support the Wellspringproject, which would have used state funding to create anindustrial park for three northern Mississippi counties.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak joked that Barnett did not leave himmuch to talk about, but said the casinos were springing back wellfrom the storm and should soon be adding even more money to thestate’s coffers. Moak is chairman of the House GamingCommittee.

Hyde-Smith used much of her time behind the podium to promotebiodiesel fuels. The senator has been striving for a biodieselplant for Mississippi.

A law to mandate that all state fuels be modified to include 2percent biodiesel fuel was defeated in the legislature because ofconcerns about timing, following on the footsteps of Katrina andthe difficulties in getting fuel after the storm, and badinformation, she said.

The fuel is better for the environment, uses less oil and ismore economical, Hyde-Smith said. It could also fuel the state’sagricultural base because the additives are derived from somestaple crops grown here.

“I do believe we’ll have a biodiesel plant coming to Mississippiin the future … I just wish it was today,” Hyde-Smith said.

The senator said she was also heavily in support of an effort tobring a foreign animal disease research center to the state.

“If we landed this, it would be bigger than NASA,” she said,citing statistics that stated it would employ more than 400 peopleinitially at an average salary of $75,000.

However, Hyde-Smith doubted the facility would be built nearBrookhaven.

“I don’t think we’re close enough to an international airport toland it in Brookhaven,” she said.

Barnett, who is 80 years old and has served in the House for 15years, was asked one personal question during the open forum: Wouldhe be a candidate in the 2007 election?

“I’m not Strom Thurmond,” he said, referring to the SouthCarolina senator whose record stands as the longest serving andoldest senator in U.S. history with 48 years when he retired at age100.

Barnett said he has until the March 1, 2007, qualifying deadlineto make a decision. He said he had a little problem in decidingwhat to do.

“My son would like to run for this position, and if we’re bothon the ballot I don’t know who my wife would vote for,” therepresentative joked while looking at his son, Paul Barnett, whoowns a car dealership here.