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Session’s first week sees little activity

The 2010 legislative session got off to a quick start lastTuesday when lawmakers created incentives for a German steelindustry in Tunica County, but the rest of Week One was mostlyspent game planning for the task ahead.

Local lawmakers said business was slow as usual during the firstweek of the session, but the no-rush talks carried out last weekwill lead to hard and fast debates in the weeks to follow. Actionhas been light, but preparation was heavy as lawmakers prepare forthe Jan. 13 deadline to request legislation.

“Right now, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talk,” saidDistrict 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “I’m going from memberto member, trying to get people on board with things I’m doing, andthey’re doing the same.

Currie said the bulk of discussions occurring last week centeredon the state’s dreadfully weak revenues, and where more than $700million in expenses could be cut. She said lawmakers’ outlook onthe cuts is a nervous one, and so far no clear plan how to handlethe reductions has been agreed upon.

“There are many legislators headed in many differentdirections,” Currie said. “Everybody has their own agendagoing.”

While factions argue over the state’s mental health crisisintervention centers – Gov. Haley Barbour recommends closing six -Currie said the debate over whether or not to close them willcontinue to be misguided until laws are changed allowing their fullutilization. While the centers have helped cut down wait times foradmission into the Mississippi State Hospital, she said, they’restill not fulfilling their roles as designed – to keep mentalpatients out of county jails.

Currie said she is working on legislation with the MississippiPsychiatric Association to change the state’s mental commitmentlaws, which she called “ancient.”

“Until we get things corrected, the centers will be used wrong,”Currie said. “All they are right now is mini state hospitals.They’re not keeping anyone out of jail. We need to fix it so no onehas to go to jail because they’re sick.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, said some Housemembers are preparing to draw a line in the sand over the impendingbudget cuts, especially concerning education and public safety -two areas he and others believe should not be reduced. Evans alsoquestioned the governor’s proposals for mass closures ofMississippi Department of Mental Health Facilities, saying “thecure is worse than the disease.”

“There’s been a lot of talk of furloughing or laying off statetroopers. That might be a way to help balance the budget, but whatare these people going to do when they don’t have jobs?” hesaid.

Evans was one of 70 House members who voted in favor of a failedattempt to suspend the rules and pass Rep. Johnny Stringer’s HouseBill 392, which would have protected education and other budgetsfrom reductions by the state fiscal officer.

To balance out the no-cut proposal, much of the closed-doortalks last week centered on raising some taxes to increase staterevenue, Evans said. He mentioned the possibility of a new incometax on high earners, and a collection of other tax bills havealready been dropped into the House hopper.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, said manysenators spent last week crunching numbers, trying to figure outhow much money the state would have to raise to meet federalMedicaid matches. She and other senators are also scrambling toprotect Oakley Training School, which could face closure if theMississippi Department of Human Services’ budget is cut toomuch.

“We have nowhere to send adolescent offenders if we closeOakley, and the judges are not happy about that at all,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Hyde-Smith said the Senate would undergo “some heavy lifting”next week as startup procedures are finished and the sessioncontinues.