Lawmakers tackle issues at meeting

Published 6:00 am Monday, February 11, 2008

Area legislators fielded questions concerning their work inJackson Monday morning at the Chamber of Commerce’s legislativebreakfast held at Western Sizzlin’.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven; District 53 Rep.Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto; and District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith,D-Brookhaven, spoke to an audience of approximately 90 on issuessuch as illegal immigration, Medicaid and education funding.

All three lawmakers stressed that the legislative process wasstill young in 2008, and much work remained to be done.

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“The first couple of weeks have been slow getting started,”Currie said. “It took us a while to get organized, but now we’reworking and looking at bills.”

Hyde-Smith agreed.

“The session is still pretty new; it’s still very early,” thesenator said. “There is a lot on the table right now. We have a lotof plates spinning, but the process is still early. It’s a verybusy time right now.”

Hyde-Smith also soberly warned the crowd that, with so manyissues to settle in the midst of a budget crunch, not all the dealsthe legislators will reach will be pleasing across the board,especially on issues like the proposed tobacco tax.

“Medicaid is looking at an $86 million shortage, and next yearit will be needing more,” she said. “We’ve discussed a cigarettetax that is earmarked for Medicaid, and I think the public wouldsupport it. We’ll be working out a solution, but it may not bepretty. Not everyone will be happy.”

Moak’s remarks on any forthcoming immigration bills in the Housealso served as a warning.

“The states are limited under the Constitution,” he said. “Wecan do a couple of things – we can pull business licenses fromemployers who hire illegal immigrants; we can withhold somegovernment benefits if part of the determining factor of thosebenefits is not nationality. Supremacy laws will limit us on whatwe can do.”

Moak did celebrate, however, the recent House passage of a billfully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. He spokeof a battle won in the support of the Mississippi School of theArts.

“Every year, we’re asked about MSA,” Moak said. “They alwayspull us into an office and talk to us about it, because we’respending $60,000 to $70,000 per student each year. They always wantus to pull that back.”

Moak’s words prompted a response from Currie, who defended herposition as one of the few House members who voted against therecent education funding bill. She said that, with the bill’s extrafunding that went above the requirements of MAEP, supporting thelegislation would have been “fiscally irresponsible” in a year witha budget shortfall.

“The bill was fully funding education, but with $60 millionmore,” Currie said. “I wanted to fund education – there’s no one inthe House or the Senate that doesn’t want to fully fund education.But it’s $60 million this year; next year it will be even more. Ivoted ‘no’ because we don’t have the money.”

The legislative breakfast was not all warnings andexplanations.

The three lawmakers also explained how the Lincoln County areawas well-positioned in Jackson, with each local legislator servingon important committees that put them and their home region at theforefront of the state’s affairs. Moak is once more the chairman ofthe Gaming committee, Currie was appointed to the Medicaidcommittee and Hyde-Smith has been appointed to oversee theappropriations for the department of mental health, the state’slargest agency.

“I think the Lincoln County delegation got some goodassignments,” Moak said.

Hyde-Smith is looking forward to her duties.

“I’ve got new responsibilities I haven’t had before,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Hyde-Smith also shared information on a developing situationthat could have a huge impact on the area. At 1 p.m. Monday, shewill be meeting with representatives from an unnamed, potentialindustry and the Mississippi Development Authority to discuss theindustry’s possible location to the area.

“Gov. (Haley) Barbour has told me, ‘Whatever it takes to helpyou in Southwest Mississippi, we’ll provide,'” she said.

No details of the industry were made available.

Hyde-Smith also gave the audience a heads-up on the possibleconstruction of a burn center somewhere in the state.

“We’re looking at a three-year plan,” she said. “Nothing hasbeen decided, but I hope it’s going to be in the makings. A burncenter is very much needed. We’re still trying to gather thefigures. No dollars have been earmarked.”