Lawmakers learning ropes in House action

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 28, 2008

The Mississippi Legislature saw the first bills of the sessionintroduced last week and two area freshman representatives foundout of how fast the House can deal with business, while a veteransenator was bogged down in special duties.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, abstained from herfirst vote on a bill that came before the first meeting of theMedicaid committee. She chose not to approve or deny a $3.8 millionbill that provided transportation costs to 500 dialysis patientsfor renal care.

“When I went to the Medicaid meeting, the first thing they saidwas ‘We’re going to pass a bill,'” Currie said. “I made thestatement that I was just uncomfortable voting on a bill that I hadnot had time to read.”

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Currie said Medicaid committee Chairman Rep. Dirk Dedeaux,D-Perkinston, was in favor of going ahead with the bill because thecommittee had such a long way in addressing an $86 million shortageof Medicaid funds this year. Currie’s request for additional timeto familiarize herself with the bill was denied, and the billpassed out of the committee without her support.

“I abstained from voting because I didn’t know what the bill wasabout,” Currie said. “It’s not that I would necessarily have beenagainst giving a ride to anyone for renal care, because they haveto have dialysis to live, but I felt obligated to the taxpayers ofMississippi to read the bill before I voted.”

Another local lawmaker, District 91 Rep. Bob Evans,D-Monticello, was present for the renal care bill. He threw hissupport behind it, but sympathized with Currie’s votingabstinence.

“Becky had a question, basically a question that I had also -she just beat me to it,” Evans said. “Basically, her question was,’Look, I think I’m for this bill, but we’re surprised with it. Giveus time to figure it out and let us make an informed decision.’Every one of us who are brand new had that question. Under thecircumstances, I’m glad she asked it before I did.”

The first meeting of the Medicaid committee was quite a learningexperience, lawmakers said.

Evans said Currie, himself and other freshman representativesremained after the committee meeting had adjourned to speak withDedeaux, who received their questions warmly. He also said that2008’s freshmen would be a different breed than the rookies of pastsessions.

“There’s an old saying in the House that says ‘Freshmen are tobe seen and not heard,'” Evans said. “That old suggestion is notgoing to go over real well with this current group of freshmen. Wewill have a myriad of questions, and we’re gonna ask ’em.

“Hopefully, the vets will take us seriously. But if they don’t,we’re still gonna ask,” Evans continued. “We have as much right toinquire as anyone who has been there for 30 years.”

With their first voting experience behind them, Currie and Evansare preparing for this week, in which the House will begin to “getinto the meat of the session.”

“Because the speaker’s race last as long as it did, committeeassignments had to be moved back, and essentially they told us wehad about two weeks to accomplish what is normally done in two andone-half months,” Evans said. “It’s absolutely a learningexperience for us first-timers, as is everything that goes on upthere. It has been hectic, and there will probably be more of thesame this week.”

On the other side of the building, District 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, has been deeply involved with “hectic”since the session began.

She was appointed to a five-member panel, a special committeeformed to settle the contested Senate race in District 21 betweenKenneth Wayne Jones and incumbent Sen. Joseph Thomas. The committeepassed its recommendations on to the Senate and Jones was awardedthe seat.

The process has taken up almost all of Hyde-Smith’s time.

“I was in hearings literally all day long, all week,” she said.”We started at 7:45 each morning and went all day. There was norelief until everyone voted Friday. This has been a three-weekaffair.”

Hyde-Smith did rejoin the rest of the Senate Friday in time topass “sunshine” legislation regarding oversight of contractsawarded by the state attorney general’s office to outside legalfirms. The bill dictates that if the cost of hiring an outsidecounsel for the state exceeds $1 million, then the attorney generalmust submit the matter to the Senate for a review.

“I think it’s very sensible legislation,” Hyde-Smith said. “Andit was much-needed. I wish it had been in place sooner.”

Hyde-Smith was also named the chairwoman of the appropriationssubcommittee last week, placing her firmly in the midst of thestate’s budget proceedings. With this appointment, combined withthe Thursday deadline for requesting the introduction of bills andHyde-Smith’s other duties, she expects to be “really hustling thisweek.”

Hyde-Smith’s has a special role to play in public healthcommittee.

“Any legislation dealing with any matters that come under theDepartment of Human Services – I will be explaining the legislationon the Senate floor and handling the debate,” she said. “I will goto the podium, explain the bill and all 52 senators will have theopportunity to ask questions about the legislation that I will haveto answer. In other words, I’ll be on the hot seat.”