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Divorce bill passes Senate unanimously

One bill championed by Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday, while another died by a vote of one.

Sens. Doty, Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and David Blount, D-Jackson, amended HB 1356, which deals with criminal sexual assault protection orders, to add divorce reform measures which had already passed the Senate overwhelmingly. The bill that had been killed in a House committee without a vote passed without opposition.

One of the measures will create a lengthy separation, e.g. two years or more, as a 13th ground for divorce, as long as the couple has no minor children. The other measure adds “including spousal domestic abuse”, and removes the word “habitual” from the existing ground of “cruel and inhuman treatment.”

Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, House Judiciary B Chairman, killed the Senate-passed measures by not bringing them up for vote prior to the deadline. A Baptist preacher, Gipson was leery of promoting divorce or making divorce an easier option.

After meeting with an anti-domestic violence group, however, Gipson authored a measure to allow victims of domestic abuse to get a divorce with greater ease, and added the measure to a bill that passed the House on Monday.

Mississippi is one of only two states without a unilateral “no fault” divorce provision – the other is South Dakota – which allows one spouse to delay a divorce, sometimes for years.

“While I appreciate the work of the House to revive the bill,” Doty told the media, “I want to be certain that domestic violence is a grounds for divorce in our state. The Senate now has another vehicle to advance the issue and will work with the House on the final language.”

Some of the language in Gipson’s proposal was included in the Senate amendment.

It makes proving domestic abuse in court easier, partly by clarifying that the abused spouse can testify as a witness to the abuse, preventing children from being forced to appear in court on the issue.

Although the domestic abuse bill made it out alive, another Doty-championed bill did not.  A bill that would have allowed the state to withhold income tax refunds from state residents who owed private hospitals and community colleges was voted down in a very close 24-23 vote.

Those who owed debts greater than $100 to non-profit hospitals and $25 to community colleges could have had portions of their tax refunds withheld to repay the debt, if the bill had passed. This practice is already in place for child support debt and uncollected four-year university debts.

The bill was held on a motion to reconsider, however, meaning the Senate can take another vote on the same legislation today.

“Our hospitals are subject to federal guidelines, and laws that require them to take in certain patients,” Doty said. “I think they deserve some different treatment than just a retailer. They are in a separate class.”

Doty defended the bill from the Senate floor Wednesday, saying she had worked on this provision for six years.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, expressed his concerns over the bill last week.

“I’m in favor of the community colleges having this ability,” Hopson said, “but I’ve got some concern over non-public entities claiming state tax refunds.”

Hopson said he was concerned the bill would start a slippery slope for private hospitals, and added, “Quite honestly, I wonder if this will start a pecking order of who can collect in the private sector.”

Prior to the Senate vote on the bill, Hopson successfully introduced an amendment Wednesday that would place the ability of public hospitals to collect debt as a priority over that of private hospitals.

Kell Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi Community  College Board, said Mississippi residents are currently in debt to community colleges around $98 million. Not surprisingly, Smith believes the bill would be a good tool for the colleges to collect some of what is owed to them.

Under existing law, four-year universities have the authority the work with the Department of Revenue to have tax refunds withheld in order to repay debt. Those who wish to dispute the withholdings after the fact can appeal. Community colleges would have used the same process. Hospitals, however, would first require a judgment from a county’s Justice Court judge, who could authorize withholding after a hearing is held.

Last week, the bill was held on a motion to table by Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who questioned the legality of adding hospitals to the legislation. On Wednesday, after consultation with Senate attorneys, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves ruled the point of order not well taken, allowing Doty to move forward in defense of the bill and giving the Senate body the go-ahead to vote on the issue.

Prior to the failing vote, three senators spoke on the floor against the bill, including Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.

“We don’t care about folks. We want what we want, and that’s not the right attitude,” said Jordan. “We all read God’s word, and we know what it says. I don’t see any compassion in this bill for the poor.”