Local legislators face bill deadline

Published 9:26 pm Saturday, February 13, 2016

Lincoln County’s legislators have authored their share of bills so far this session — 56 as of Friday. Those measures are facing a Feb. 23 deadline to make it out of committee.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, is the principal author of 27 measures and has co-authored or was involved in a host of others. The same is true for Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who is the principal author of 29 measures.

Sen. Sally Doty

Sen. Sally Doty

Doty authored Senate Bill 2155, which is being considered in the Appropriations committee. It would designate the Center for Violence Prevention as the lead organization to respond to human trafficking.

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A government task force on human trafficking this past summer spurred good recommendations and information about how to address the issue in Mississippi, Doty said. One realization that came out of that, Doty said, was that there was no single group coordinating investigations and efforts to deter and remedy the horrible occurrence. Both Doty and Currie said that the task force definitely made one thing clear: human trafficking happens here.

Rep. Becky Currie

Rep. Becky Currie

The Center for Violence Prevention is a long-standing group that deals with domestic violence in the Jackson area. Doty said they have a plan to integrate law enforcement, carry out education in agencies and also provide shelters for the victims.

“They have the expertise to bring all the parts of the complex issue together, and I’m hoping we can give that authority to them and find some money for [those efforts,]” Doty said. “At times we may not want to bring it up or acknowledge the issue, but it does happen, and it is a real problem.”

Another bill inspired by the task force is Senate Bill 2156, which is described as addressing human trafficking, specifically clarifying offenses against children.

“We realized we needed some updates and changes in our laws,” Doty said.

Senate Bill 2214 is designated towards circuit clerks and would increase the marriage license fee and the per diem for attending court. Doty said the small marriage license fee — $21 — doesn’t really cover the associated costs, and surrounding states’ fees are between $50 and $100. This would help circuit clerk offices, Doty said.

Senate Bill 2413 addresses sex education in schools and would renew legislation passed in 2011 on mandatory sex ed. It changes the terminology used for the subject to “personal responsibility education” and would require implementation in middle and high school curriculum.

“It’s a little more modern term to help us all talk about it and give school districts more flexibility in how to teach it,” Doty said. “Our school districts are so different, some are urban and some more rural. We want them to be able to make the decisions about how best to teach this to their students. We have really made some steps in Mississippi in unplanned and teen pregnancy. Our rate has gone down continually since 2011.”

Doty also authored Senate Bill 2418, which would establish domestic violence as an additional ground for divorce. In domestic violence situations, Doty said, many times the abuser does not want to let the victim out of the relationship. The cruel and inhumane treatment ground for divorce, Doty said, is hard to prove and troublesome.

“We thought we’d be explicit and make it an additional ground as it is defined in other places in our code to help people in abusive relationships,” she said.

Doty said she has her eyes on several Lincoln County-specific bills, as well as one that would allow sheriff’s deputies to use radar on county roads. Agencies have expressed that it is a problem to enforce speed limits, Doty said.

Currie authored House Bill 615 that deals with the proposed Mental Health Court that would operate similar to the drug court system. It would establish a pilot program in Hinds County.

“We are working hard on this, and what it would do is it would run just like a drug court runs. You have mentally ill patients, and they might do something to end up in the court system as a result of going off their medicine,” Currie said. “In our prison systems we have a tremendous amount of mentally ill patients, jailed for petty crime. They do this in Louisiana, and they saved $36 million worth of antipsychotic medications in their prisons. Offenders have conditions like once a week they have to check in with their counselors, take their medicine and follow up with treatments.”

Currie said there is a good deal of support from lawyers, judges and even the families that struggle with family members in these situations. She filed another bill that would establish the system in all counties, in hopes that one of the measures will be considered.

“We think it’s going to be very successful — and humane,” she said. “Do we want somebody in prison because they’re off their medicine when all we needed to do was make sure they’re doing what they need to do.”

Currie, also spurred by the summer’s task force on human trafficking, authored House Bill 553, which would increase the penalty for human trafficking.

“One of the things I found in listening to all of the discussion this summer is that it happens in Mississippi,” Currie said. “We hear about it elsewhere, but it happens here too. But what I find so terrible is the lack of a strong penalty. I think if you enslave a person for any reason, it’s a hideous crime. The penalties were not strong.

“I would like as a state to take a stand and say ‘If you think about doing this in Mississippi, chances are you’re going away for a very long time,’” she said. “We need to put that message out there.”

House Bill 531, authored by Currie, would create the Unborn Infants Dignity Act.

“To sum that up: we’re not going to sell body parts in the state of Mississippi. It’s a big title to state that,” Currie said.

The measure deals with several topics associated with fetal death, including the prohibition of the buying, selling or experimentation on unborn infants or remains resulting from abortion. The measure also includes language to require the release of certain remains to the mother.

“We need to give them a choice,” Currie said. “If they want to bury their infant they should have that choice. It’s a tragic circumstance that many women don’t get closure for. If they need to have a funeral to help [through the experience], we need to give them that choice.”

The bill, however, mostly stresses the stance on the sale of body parts, Currie said.

Equal pay for equal work is the subject of House Bill 513, which would require equal pay for employees of opposite sex in the same work establishment. Currie said while there is a federal law establishing this, she isn’t sure it is being adhered to everywhere.

“And whose checking?” Currie asked. “I just thought a state bill to let people know was needed. So I’m just kind of hammering home that point — there are a lot of working women in Mississippi. We’re supporting families too.”

House Bill 47 deals with school accountability standards and would revise the manner by which accreditation ratings are assigned and require independent assessment by the state auditor.

Currie said the findings of a study concerning the letter grades assigned to schools were stirring. Unfortunately, she said, Mississippi’s scores are probably a letter grade higher than they should be.

“If you’re an A right now you probably really are a B,” Currie said. “If you’re a D you’re probably really an F. It should be done a certain way, and people should know about their school. You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. We all need to be held accountable, and it has to be based on true facts. These changes would reflect that.”

Currie said she is invested in the Patient Protection Act that would allow Mississippians to keep their doctors and have it covered by their insurance.

She also worked on a bill concerning creationism being taught in schools, which is one of the more controversial measures this session. However, Currie said, the bill is only meant to protect teachers if they decide to bring up the theory of creationism in discussions. Teaching students critical thinking is also at the root of the bill.

“Right now, if a child brings up creationism the teacher can discuss it, but if the teacher brings it up, she gets in trouble,” Currie said.

She said that many ideas concerning the origin of life should be discussed in a way that helps students think creatively and critically.

“It would be so that teachers could say, ‘There are people that believe that God created man.’ To be required to not say that is pitiful too.”