Area lawmakers discuss new bills in upcoming term

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 4, 2010

Local lawmakers agreed last week the budget battle in the 2010legislative session will be so severe and time-consuming thatlittle time will be left for other pursuits.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying to pushtheir own legislation through. With the session starting in twodays, Lincoln County area lawmakers are preparing to make their ownthrusts for law changes and restructuring in state government.

So far, none of the local legislators has risen to the challengelike District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who has alreadyreadied and written a flurry of bills for the House to chew on.Much of her proposed legislation for the New Year is lengthy andcontroversial. She admits her bills have little chance of success,but she’s going to try regardless.

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“I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m just trying to stirthe conversation,” Currie said. “I at least hope they’ll look at itand say, ‘What exactly is she talking about?’ I hope this will atleast make legislators aware of some of these issues.”

Currie plans to continue a yearlong assault on what sheconsiders frivolous spending by the Mississippi Department ofMental Health, a battle she committed to last year and walked awayfrom bruised. One of her most lengthy bills planned for the comingsession seeks to force DMH directors and administrators who live instate-provided housing to begin paying rent to the state at fairmarket value.

More than 120 DMH personnel are required to live on the campusesof the facilities in which they serve, and those accommodationsrange from one-room dormitories to multi-bedroom houses.Legislation last year required those administrators to begin payingtheir own utility bills for the first time.

“If you’re going to live in a free house, and we’re going topaint it and mow your yard and you don’t have to pay ad valorem orinsurance, you’re going to pay rent,” Currie said.

Currie is also seeking to terminate statewide housing emolumentsfor the mental health department, which she claims adds up tomillions of dollars for department administrators’ retirementaccounts annually.

Other policies Currie will attempt to enact include requiringhigh school student athletes to maintain weekly GPAs before beingallowed to participate in sports; requiring state agencies to listall their revenue and expenditures on their Web sites; the removalof political parties from county and city elections; and a completerestructuring of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learninggoverning body.

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, is hoping to reshapesome of the political rules in Mississippi by forcing officeholders who change political affiliations during a term to resigntheir seats and run again in a special election. He said he wasmotivated to write the bill after several officials in SimpsonCounty defected from the Democratic Party and aligned themselveswith the Republican Party.

“It seems like you’re pulling the wool over the eyes of thepeople who elected you. I think it’s disingenuous, almost beinguntruthful to the people who voted for you,” Evans said.

Evans also hopes to kill Mississippi’s implied consent lawconcerning driving under the influence, which compels all motoriststo submit to breathalyzer tests and charges those who refuse. Hesaid the requirement is a violation of citizens’ Fifth Amendmentprivileges by forcing those suspected of drunk driving toself-incriminate – even if they aren’t drinking. Drinking or not,refusing to undergo a breathalyzer is a punishable under thelaw.

Like Currie, Evans isn’t holding out much hope for new DUIlegislation.

“Anything you say that deals with DUI in the Legislature is DOA(dead on arrival), but nevertheless,” he said.

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, also wants tochange the law’s approach in 2010. He plans to push legislationthat will allow courts to expunge the records of non-violentoffenders who have served their time and paid their debt tosociety.

“We’ve got stories of people who did something when they were 21years old, something they shouldn’t have done, and now they’re 50years old and they’re preachers,” Moak said. “There needs to besomething that allows the courts to be the gatekeepers, to look atthose issues.”

Moak said his bill would not apply to violent offenders whocommit crimes against a person, saying “some things you can’tundo.” He said he has worked with several statewide law enforcementassociations to craft the legislation.

Several housekeeping measures for the state’s gaming laws arealso being prepared, Moak said.

Most of what District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven,has planned for the 2010 session are housekeeping measures. Shesaid will attempt to tweak sections of the Mississippi Code to makethe operation of state government run more efficiently and continueto adjust rules at the Department of Human Services.

“None of them are sexy,” Hyde-Smith said of her pending bills.”Some things in code section have been there a long time and havebeen a huge hindrance, but no one has ever taken the time to changethem. It’s not glamorous, but it helps the state run smoothly.”

One of Hyde-Smith’s goals for the session is to clarify childsupport laws under DHS, such as allowing half payment of childsupport for parents who agree to half custody during extending timeperiods, like summer vacation.

“No one has ever changed the statute, and there’s all thisconfusion and all these fights and you have to call and sort it allout. All you have to do is change the statute,” she said.