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Lawmakers act on slew of bills before adjourning for holiday weekend

Attempts to revive measures that didn’t survive this week’s legislative deadline were among the actions taken by lawmakers before adjourning Thursday for the Easter weekend.

In the Senate, Fees and Salaries Committee Chairman Terry Brown, R-Columbus, inserted language into a House bill that would allow 25 state agencies to be removed from the oversight of the state Personnel Board. The House bill originally dealt with the classification of Department of Marine Resources patrol trainees.

A Senate bill with the Personnel Board intent died in the House, but Brown said he’s trying to resurrect the issue as a service to taxpayers.

The Personnel Board sets job protection policies for many state employees. The bill frees the 25 agencies from adhering to the policies for one year. During that time, agency heads would have free will to hire and fire state workers.

“Our job down here is to deliver services as lean and as inexpensively and as quickly as we can,” Brown said Thursday. “Sometimes that means you’ve got to purge your rolls or realign your department.”

Critics of the bill warn that it could lead to mass firings, and possibly prompt lawsuits from people who think they’ve been terminated unjustly.

Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, is among those who voted against the bill. He said the Department of Marine Resources would be one of the agencies affected.

“The Marine Resources is doing a good job,” Gollott said. “Whenever something is working like it is down there, it doesn’t need to be fixed.”

The bill passed 28-19 and is now headed back to House.

Meanwhile, a House member is trying to extend the deadline for lawmakers to consider a cigarette tax bill that would create a revenue stream for the Division of Medicaid.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he’s filing a resolution to suspend the deadline rules for the bill, that died when Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, declined to bring it up for a committee vote on Tuesday.

Medicaid is facing an $87 million deficit this fiscal year. The program also has asked lawmakers for a $168 million budget increase for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Supporters of the cigarette tax have said it would generate $174 million annually.

“Medicaid is too important to this state to just let it die,” Flaggs said in a statement. “We need to avoid a special session and this would help to prevent that.”

Flaggs’ resolution would have to be approved by two-thirds of both chambers to allow the cigarette tax bill to be reconsidered.

Flaggs said Medicaid will run out of money in April, “and I do not want us to have an interruption in services such as pharmaceutical and nursing homes.”

Medicaid spokesman Francis Rullan said there’s enough money to operate through the end of the session, which ends April 19.

In other action:

— The Senate sent to the governor a bill that would create a task force to review underperforming schools and make recommendations to improve them.

— The Senate sent to the governor a bill that would make bribing a judge a criminal offense of the state’s obstruction of justice law. Currently, that law criminalizes the bribing of jurors and witnesses, but not judges.

— The Senate passed a bill that would designate U.S. 61 the “Blues Highway.” The bill was held for more debate. If it clears the Senate, it will go the governor.

The bills are House Bill 870, Senate Bill 2680, House Bill 1013, Senate Bill 2405, House Bill 1108 and House Bill 877.