Miss. lawmakers try for quick start to 2007 session

Published 7:17 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Political divisions are already emerging in the election-year Mississippi legislative session.

Within hours of the opening gavel on Tuesday, a mostly Republican group in the House blocked a procedural move that would’ve allowed quick votes on a long list of budget bills backed by Democratic leadership, including one to fully fund a public schools funding formula.

“This is substantial legislation that we received literally minutes before the bills were brought up,” said Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon.

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House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he was “shocked beyond comprehension when an obviously organized opposition” blocked quick votes on the bills.

“I am just sorry for the people of this state who stood to benefit so much,” McCoy said.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and most lawmakers are expected to seek re-election this year. Candidates’ filing deadline is March 1 — two-thirds of the way through the three-month session.

Barbour has said he supports fully funding public schools and giving pay raises to teachers and state employees. But he also has said there’s no reason to consider any part of the $4 billion-plus overall state budget in isolation during the early days of the session. The governor says that by March, lawmakers will have a clearer picture of state financial trends.

House committees on Tuesday approved pay raises for teachers and state employees, full funding for a public schools budget formula, more money for universities and community colleges, more money for public safety and mental health programs and a state subsidy to help coast businesses pay for insurance through the state wind pool.

All the bills could come up for votes in the full House soon. If they pass, they’ll go to the Senate for more debate.

“We want to get through, and the money’s there now. Why wait ’til March?” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

Dozens of parents, school board members and others were at the Capitol Tuesday wearing white lapel stickers with blue letters saying: “Fully Fund MAEP.”

MAEP is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to ensure that each school district has enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

The formula was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only once, in the last statewide election year of 2003.

Among those hoping for an early vote on education funding is Shawna Davie, 23, a senior at Jackson State University.

“It’s really an issue we should all be concerned about. It should be at the top of our priorities,” said Davie, who wore one of the MAEP stickers. “Education is the only thing that will essentially touch all of our lives.”

State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds told the House Education Committee that even with a 3 percent teacher pay raise, Mississippi is likely to remain near the bottom of national salary scales.

“The problem is, we don’t know what every other state is doing,” Bounds said. “We’re shooting at a moving target.”

Mississippi teacher salaries vary according to which degrees a person holds and how many years she’s been in the classroom.

The current entry-level salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $30,000. The highest pay, $55,250, goes to a teacher with a doctorate and at least 25 years’ experience.

The proposed pay plan would give assistant teachers a $1,000 bump this July 1 and another $500 a year later. The current average salary for assistants is about $12,500.

The other bills awaiting a full House vote would give 5 percent raises to university and community college faculty and staff; increases of at least $1,500 for most state employees; and increases of $3,000 to state troopers and narcotics agents.

The Senate swore in its newest member, Republican Joey Fillingane of Sumrall. He won a special election in November to fill a vacancy created by the death of Sen. Billy Harvey, D-Prentiss. The Senate is now back up to a full 52 members.

“We worked very hard to get here and I’m just looking forward to working with the other 51 senators for the benefit of District 41,” Fillingane said. “The budget is the biggest topic…. We have a ton of needs we have to fill, with funding education being at the top of everyone’s list. Medicaid is another big issue.”

Runoff elections were held Tuesday to fill two vacant seats in the 122-member House. One is the seat Fillingane has held the past seven years; the other is the seat Republican Virginia Carlton has held the past three years. Carlton was elected to the state Court of Appeals.

The bills are House Bills 239, 238, 241, 242, 244, 245 and 243.