Most people agree crafting a budget will be the biggest hurdle for lawmakers as they return to the Capitol this week, but they also will have several other issues, including immigration reform and a statewide smoking ban, that could heat up the 2011 session.
For the first time, some form of a statewide smoking ban actually may have a chance - thanks in part to a multimillion-dollar initiative that’s gaining support across the state.
State Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, has filed a version of a smoking ban bill for several years to no avail, but he said he’s seen the added boost for this year.
“I think if there’s any year we might be able to get something on the floor, this is the year,” Mayo said.
The Smokefree Air Mississippi initiative is being funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the first organized push for such a ban here.
House Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Steve Holland said he will consider bringing the bill up in committee. Holland, D-Plantersville, previously had blocked similar bills from making it to the House floor.
“If Steve allows it out of his committee, it has a really good chance of passing,” Mayo said.
The push likely will face some opposition, but the biggest struggle could be the Legislature’s efforts to draw new districts.
“It’s very difficult,” Gov. Haley Barbour said of the reapportionment process.
He said he supports efforts to make districts more compact “rather than strung out.”
“It won’t surprise me if the courts end up drawing the districts,” he said.
In discussing the reapportionment plans, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant often has said he doesn’t intend to settle with House plans, as has been done in the past.
“That is going to be a huge issue from day one, and I think it will set the tone for the rest of the session,” Mayo said.
Bryant has defended his resistance to rubber-stamping plans drafted by each chamber.
“We need to do away with this gentleman’s agreement,” he said. “It essentially amounts to trading votes, and it should have never been done.”
Bryant also plans to push for an immigration-enforcement law similar to Arizona’s, allowing police officers to check the status of people they think might be in the country illegally as a secondary offense.
“If someone is stopped for speeding or DUI, I think our law enforcement officers should determine the residency status,” Bryant said.
The efforts have been decried by immigrants’ rights groups, which have held protests at the Capitol and participated in hearings on the proposal in the fall.
Mayo said he thinks immigration enforcement is up to the federal government.
“I think what the state has to decide is what type of services do we provide and deny illegal immigrants,” Mayo said. “Rounding them up and holding them - I just don’t think it’s our responsibility.”
At least two bills that failed last session may be resurrected.
For years, animal rights advocates have pushed for stricter state laws against the torture and maiming of dogs and cats, but farming proponents have blocked efforts to strengthen the animal abuse laws.
According to media reports, outgoing Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation President David Waide told members in December that the animal welfare legislation would be the biggest hurdle the group faces in the coming year.
“I know there’s not a person in this room that doesn’t agree that we need to protect animals, but I also believe there’s not a person in this room that believes that animals should have rights,” Waide said during the group’s annual meeting in Jackson.
The animal welfare bills typically have been directed to the House Agriculture Committee, where they have died.
Mayo said he would like those bills to go to the Judiciary B Committee because they would have a better chance of passing. The Judiciary B Committee typically deals with issues of criminal punishments.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, is expected to again propose tougher school bus safety rules.
Dubbed “Nathan’s Law” after 5-year-old Nathan Key, who was killed in December 2009 when a driver went around a stopped school bus and hit Key, the bill passed the Senate last session, but died in a House committee.
House Banking and Financial Services Committee Chairman George Flaggs plans to introduce a bill in the first few days of the session to extend the life of Mississippi’s payday lending industry.
The payday lending law is scheduled to sunset July 1, 2012.
Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, has said he plans to hold hearings early in the session at the request of the industry and its critics.
House Speaker Billy McCoy said he would like to see a significant bond bill for road construction. “That’s so important,” said McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi.
Mississippi received nearly $350 million in federal stimulus funding for highways and bridges, but leaders say additional funding is needed for repairs and maintenance.
According to TRIP, a nonprofit Washington-based transportation research group, Mississippi needs $12.5 billion in transportation funding through 2019 to make necessary road and bridge improvements to relieve traffic congestion.
At current funding levels, less than $7 billion will be available over that period.
The needed projects span the state, and Mississippi has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the nation.
By Elizabeth Crisp: [email protected]