2004 SESSION

MISSISSIPPI HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Jackson, Mississippi

House Information Office

Contact: Mac Gordon,

601-359-3323

HIGHLIGHTS OF 2004 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

JACKSON, Miss. Budget concerns from opening day in January through to sine die adjournment in May once again highlighted and dominated the 2004 Legislature.

Riding a national trend of recovery from an economic recession that hit hard following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, Mississippi's state government revenues showed improvement as the 125-day session neared an end, and the new monies contributed mightily to crafting a $3.7 billion budget for fiscal 2005 beginning July 1, 2004.

The new revenue was particularly helpful in providing 98 percent of full funding for the state's K-12 public education system. The House of Representatives was out front in this effort, first passing a bill that would have placed $184 million in the K-12 system above earlier budget recommendations. The final K-12 funding bill provided $110 million above earlier plans.

Various public education support groups, including teachers, district administrators, trustees and parents, jammed the Capitol several times during the session to encourage the House's position on fully funding K-12. A splinter group of state senators also held meetings to endorse the position held by the House.

Mississippi's estimated 30,000 public school teachers will receive an 8 percent pay raise for the next school year. Under the salary schedule adopted in funding K-12, a starting teacher with an 'A' certificate in her first year will earn $28,000 -- the very bottom rung of the pay scale. The top rung of the scale is for a teacher with at least 25 years of experience and a 'AAAA' certificate (a doctorate degree), who would earn $52,275.

Assistant teachers will now have earn a base salary of $11,200 under the plan.

The K-12 total budget including all funds will be $2.576 billion. Public education including K-12, the community college system and the eight universities will consume 60 percent of the total state General Fund budget in the new fiscal year.

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES began the term with 76 Democrats and 46 Republicans. There were 88 whites and 34 African-Americans. There were 104 men and 18 women. Rep. Bobby Moody, a Democrat, resigned near the end of the session. Carl Gregory, a Republican, won a special election to succeed Moody. Later, Rep. Philip West was elected the new mayor of Natchez and former state senator Robert Johnson, a Democrat, was elected to fill his House seat, giving the House 75 Democrats and 47 Republicans.

Veteran legislator William J. (Billy) McCoy was elected Speaker of the House on the session's first day. Elected Speaker Pro Tempore was another veteran, Rep. J.P. Compretta. The session was the first for newly-elected Gov. Haley Reeves Barbour.

A major highlight was a bill to rename a state office building in downtown Jackson for retired House Speaker Pro Tempore Robert G. Clark Jr. of Holmes County. He was the first African-American legislator of the 20th century and served with distinction for 32 years.

Further civil justice reforms, also known as tort reform, were an often-discussed item during the regular session. Gov. Barbour called the Legislature back for a special session to discuss that matter on May 19 and HB 13 was finalized on June 4 and sent to the governor for his signature. The bill sets non-economic caps for medical malpractice cases at $500,000. For general civil justice, non-economic caps are set at $1 million. The caps become effective Sept. 1, 2004. A new table for punitive damages also was established, showing a decrease from caps that were passed in 2002.

The bill also makes changes in venue, innocent seller, premises liability and joint and several liability (the percentage of damages paid for by one party). It also has provisions on jury duty and it allows a bench trial within 270 days if all parties agree.

Voter identification at the polls brought on a three-hour debate in the House and then failed on a vote of the members. When the Legislature enacted the federal Help America Vote Act in April, voter ID for some first-time voters was included. The House later adopted a bill that would have exempted some older voters and required identification for all others in every election, but the Senate balked at the exemption for senior voters and the bill died. Gov. Barbour added it to the agenda for the special session, but at deadline time the bill was in limbo.

Another issue of note that failed during the regular session was a possible toll road that would be built between the State Port at Gulfport and I-10.

AS ALWAYS, HEALTHCARE ISSUES were plentiful during the session, with the budget situation affecting virtually all of them. The operating budget for the State Division of Medicaid commanded heavy attention because of its status as the state's leading expenditure and the one that brings the state its largest federal dollars match. Medicaid operates on a budget of about $2.885 billion, with $419 million coming from state funds.

All state agencies faced cuts in the FY 2005 budget and Medicaid was not exempted. Persons qualifying for benefits in the PLAD category -- Poverty Level Aged and Disabled -- will see reduced benefits under the bill passed during the regular session. There were moves to rescind the Medicaid changes, but at latest report they were to go into effect Sept. 15, after being delayed from July 1.

The state will seek a waiver to reinstate more than 5,000 of the most needy citizens who fit that income category but don't qualify immediately for federal Medicare. The PLAD program affects persons 65 years of age and older and disabled persons with incomes up to 135 percent of the federal poverty level and helps defray the cost of their insurance deductibles and co-payments.

The Medicaid law also moves determination eligibility from the Department of Human Services to the Medicaid office. Medicaid recipients will be required to recertify annually for the program. No Medicaid-eligible recipients who live in nursing homes will be removed. The assessment, or "bed tax," on Medicaid beds will increase from $4 to $6 under the plan. The law also creates a program to better inform senior and indigent citizens of discount programs offered by drug manufacturers.

Other healthcare issues of note during the session included:

> Certificate of need for health facilities. The Senate twice killed House language that would have approved a CON for new acute-care hospitals in Tupelo and Olive Branch. However, there is a likely to be a study committee that reviews the state CON system later this year and makes a recommendation to the 2005 Legislature.

> Allowing optometrists to prescribe certain drugs died again after much debate. They also would have been allowed to do certain in-office procedures that required only local anesthesia. But under no circumstances could they do procedures requiring closure by suture or that were eyeball-invasive.

> Lawmakers voted to put the December 2003 payment from our lawsuit settlement with the tobacco industry into the 2005 budget, but left protected the $632.3 million principal balance. Most states have already spent every dime they received in the settlement. We created a Task Force on Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention in the state with the highest per-capita incidence.

> Also passed was a bill to allow rural hospitals to enter into cooperative agreements for purchasing and the like in an effort to keep them economically viable. Human cloning was banned. There were five bills on abortion, a major issue in past sessions, including one to require physicians treating persons injured while undergoing an abortion to report it to the state and another allowing physicians to "opt out" from performing abortions for reasons of conscience. The abortion bills did not create the stir that measures on this subject have produced in the past.

> The opening of several crisis centers by the State Department of Mental Health drew much focus late in the session. The House leadership proposed to raise the excise tax on cigarettes to fund opening the crisis centers, but the move failed. Historically, persons with mental health problems are often confined in county jails until they can be transferred to the proper treatment facilities. Finally, almost $13 million was placed in the Department of Mental Health budget to begin opening the crisis centers.

ON THE CRIMINAL LAW FRONT, after many years the Legislature pushed through a bill to create drug courts in all counties to be funded by increases in fines on a myriad of traffic, DUI, game and fish and litter offenses. Drug courts have proved very effective in the few counties that have had them in place for several years. A major proponent of drug courts over the years has been State Rep. Alyce Clarke.

Also passed were bills to further prosecute "drug kingpins" who are obviously evading state income taxes, with a penalty up to five years in jail and a fine up to $500,000 in addition to any other criminal penalties; to create an offense of fleeing a law enforcement officer who is in pursuit and require training for officers involved in a pursuit; to knowingly expose another person to HIV; to require sex offenders to disclose their crime to organizations they volunteer to work for; and to give trusty inmates 30 days off their sentence for each 30 days they are involved in a work or education program in prison but it will not apply to certain violent and habitual criminals. The House also passed a bill creating the offense of attempted murder, but it died in the Senate. A bill was passed to enhance penalties for using a firearm in commission of a felony.

The Legislature voted to continue paying counties $20 per day for each state inmate they house in county jails, after much debate to reduce it to $15 per day. More than 2,000 prisoners are held in county jails out of a total inmate population of about 20,000.

ONE OF GOV. BARBOUR'S first proposals was to revamp the state's workforce training program to more effectively and efficiently produce workers to meet today's changing business needs. Historically, employers and prospective workers have had to deal with a number of agencies for services. The new program, through HB 973, should maximize cooperation among state agencies, help increase employment retention and increase occupational skills among state workers in an ever-changing economy. The activities will be coordinated through a state board and district councils. The governor, two-year community college system and Planning and Development Districts will also be heavily involved. Many observers believe the bill might go down in history as the single most important measure passed in the session.

Another economic development project that could reap great benefits for the state is one to allow the drilling for natural gas in the Mississippi Sound, where seismic experts say vast deposits await of as much as 350 billion cubic feet. The state could draw severance taxes approaching $450 million over two decades, and counties along the Coast would draw additional benefits. The House added an amendment to SB 2853 that would mandate a property tax rebate in those counties of up to one-half of the amount of money gained from any severance taxes. Alabama and Louisiana have allowed such drilling for years, but Mississippi, which will severely restrict where the drilling may take place, has had little of this activity.

Tourism took a stronger stand in the Legislature this year due to the House forming a standing committee on the subject. The panel heard from numerous tourism groups from across the state on how to bring more visitors to the state. Created were the Mississippi Blues Commission to promote that authentic Mississippi-made music genre and the Mississippi Holocaust Commission to work toward a museum and other programs to ensure citizens are aware of that terrible event in world history perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Gilbert Metz of Jackson, the only Holocaust survivor known to be living in Mississippi, was an honored guest in the House of Representatives chamber on the day the bill creating the commission was approved.

Another bill, HB 1780, will offer tax incentives and credits to film companies that produce motion pictures in Mississippi, which has seen increased activity of this type in recent years.

The Legislature also enticed the Atlanta Braves to move a minor league team to Rankin County, using a law passed two years ago that provides tax credits to companies offering family-type entertainment. The "Mississippi Braves" will begin play in April 2005 in Pearl.

County elected officials will see an increase in their salaries through SB 2647. The raises, averaging 20 percent for most officials ranging from sheriffs to court reporters, will go into effect Oct. 1.

Counties may also start applying for the seventh round of a program to help them purchase fire fighting equipment.

New regulations on political campaign contributions were passed but left open a loophole involving political action committees' donations to other PACs that probably will be dealt with again in a future session.

The House also commended numerous individuals and groups. A highlight was the honoring of the Mississippians who have been called to active duty in the past year. The House encouraged citizens to use Internet websites to send them messages of support and through various other methods of communication. The ceremony honored the 12 Mississippians to date who had been killed in Iraq.

Numerous bills of a "local and private" nature were also passed, including one to allow the City of Jackson to build a $65 million convention center if a referendum of city voters receives at least a 60 percent majority. The center would be funded through extra taxes on food, beverages and hotel rooms.

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