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MAEP expected to top 2007 session

Education funding and the re-emergence of a cigarette/grocerytax bill will likely dominate the early days of the 2007legislative session that starts Tuesday, area lawmakers say, butother issues also are expected to occupy much of the legislators’time.

Full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program isprobably a foregone conclusion, said District 92 Rep. Dr. JimBarnett, R-Brookhaven.

“I think we’ll have it done in 48 hours. I will support that,”he said.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, agreed.

“I really think that’s been worked out and it will be fullyfunded,” she said. “But there are always surprises and nothing isas simple as it seems when you’re funding the state’s budget.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak was not quite so sure aboutresolution of full funding of MAEP. He said supports and hopesfully funding is addressed quickly.

“Whether that’s going to happen or not, I don’t know,” Moaksaid.

Moak cited MAEP’s role in the Legislative Budget Committee’sinability earlier this month to agree on a state budgetrecommendation for when the session starts. However, he alsoindicated a subsequent reduction of about $20 million in the amountneeded for full funding could make full funding more likely.

MAEP funding has been a hotly contested issue since itsinception. It has been fully funded only once – during the 2003election cycle.

It is a coincidence not lost on lawmakers.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.It’s politics. No doubt about it,” Barnett said.

Hyde-Smith said elections tended to make both parties moreaccepting of compromise.

“It seems that’s when we get more cooperation from the entireSenate and House,” she said. “It’s very important, and we do havemore money this year than in years past.”

Full funding of the MAEP this session does not necessarily openthe door for continued full funding, however, she said.

“The reality of this is that a lot of that is one-time money,”Hyde-Smith said.

A bill to increase cigarette taxes while reducing grocery taxesis almost certainly going to appear again after the governor’s vetolast year, they said.

Gov. Haley Barbour has said he vetoed the bill because of hispromise not to raise taxes, but also because municipalities hadexpressed concern about losing sales tax dollars, which comprises alarge part of their annual budget.

Hyde-Smith said she expects the grocery tax bill to behard-fought issue throughout the session. Her support of the billwill be determined by how it is approached this year.

“I think there has to be a lot of compromise and there has to besomething for small communities to protect them from a destroyedtax base,” she said. “It’s going to have to be done verycarefully.”

In the House, Moak said he is for reducing the sales tax ongroceries.

“I’d like to reduce it to zero,” he said.

Moak acknowledged municipalities’ concerns about the potentialfor lost revenue. He was confident those concerns could be workedout, which could include an increase on cigarette taxes.

“Mississippi has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in thenation,” Moak said.

Barnett said he is confident the Legislature will pass acompromise bill, but he is hesitant to say if it will becomelaw.

“I think it will pass and be vetoed,” he said. “It’s more aquestion of if we’ll have the votes to override.”

Area lawmakers said other issues are also likely to causeconsiderable debate.

Barnett said the reorganization of the Department of Health,which will technically cease to exist the end of June withoutreauthorization, will receive much of his attention.

“It does need reworking. The Board of Pharmacy needs reworking,too,” he said.

Barnett, a physician, said the hearings made it obvious thatpersonal interests have blunted the effectiveness of the Board ofHealth in its present incarnation.

“We need to have a new board that does not have a vestedinterest – people who are governed by the board (they regulate),”he said.

Instead, Barnett expects the Legislature to look into theformation of a new board with neutral appointees.

Moak, a member of the House Insurance Committee and a specialcommittee dealing with Katrina issues, said the Wind Pool insurancefund will need to be considered. Disputing the contention the poolonly affects the six coastal counties, he pointed out insuranceincreases across the state as a result of losses due to last year’shurricane.

“We’re probably going to have to put some state money into theWind Pool,” he said. “We’ve got to jump start the insuranceindustry on the coast so people can rebuild homes andbusinesses.”

Hyde-Smith, a member of the Corrections Committee, said inmatesand the jail system should also prove to be a difficult issue thissession. The passage of the 85 percent law, which mandates thoseconvicted of certain crimes serve 85 percent of their sentence inthe custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, hascreated problems that simply cannot be overlooked any longer.

“What it’s done is create an older population in our prisonsystem” and placed greater demands on a state agency that hasreceived funding cuts for several years, she said.

“They are going to have to have more money,” she said. “Theyhave been cut to the bone.”

Essentially, she said, MDOC has two immediate problems.

The aging population has caused inmate medical bills to increasedramatically, Hyde-Smith said. The state is responsible for thepayment of medical visits or procedures done while the inmate is inits care.

For example, she said, more than 3,000 of the state’s 21,000incarcerated inmates must take daily doses of mental healthmedications. The state must provide that medicine whether thecondition was pre-existing or discovered followingincarceration.

Additionally, low wages coupled with the rising wages in otherfields caused by the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts hassapped the number of prison employees.

One of the results of that, she said, “is that 69 percent of ourprison guards are female. This poses a lot of problems initself.”

While not disparaging their ability, the senator said there arecertain duties female guards may not commit to male inmates, suchas strip searches during booking or other standard procedures.