Barbour adds voter ID, immigration, judicial pay to session

Published 7:18 pm Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mississippi lawmakers might be forgiven for thinking they’re starting another regular session rather than a special session.

Gov. Haley Barbour has now put eight items on the agenda for the session that starts at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

One of the biggies — plugging a $90 million hole in the Medicaid budget — isn’t even officially on the “to do” list, but it might be added before the House and Senate go home.

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“Most of the issues are very straightforward. Most of the things they’ve looked at before and, for one reason or another, did not get disposed of in the regular session,” Republican Barbour said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Washington.

Only a governor can call a special session or set the agenda.

When he originally announced the session this past Friday, Barbour said he wanted lawmakers to reauthorize the state employment agency; to pass a metal recycling bill; to limit future casino sites and to make changes to a toll-road law.

On Tuesday, he added four proposals to the agenda — enacting voter identification; making revisions to an immigration law that was passed during the regular session; approving pay raises for judges and district attorneys; and setting provisions to give utility companies quicker right of way access as they work on coastal recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

This year’s regular session ended in late April, and lawmakers boasted at the time that they were saving the state thousands of dollars by shortening that session from 120 days to 103.

Now, taxpayers will shell out $59,895 for the first day of the special session. The tab for each subsequent day, without travel expenses, is $39,420.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said he has “a sense of urgency” about the session.

“We’re going to move on these items in the Senate as quickly as we can,” Bryant said Wednesday.

In a separate interview, House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he also wants to work quickly and he expects the session to last at least three days.

He said many lawmakers are still determined to discuss state advertising contracts. During the regular session, the House tried to insert advertising regulations for all state agencies into a bill that would’ve kept the Mississippi Department of Employment Security alive beyond June 30.

Barbour and the Senate disagreed with what the House was trying to do, and the MDES authorization died. Now, Barbour said businesses could face steep increases in their unemployment insurance payments if the agency goes under.

McCoy on Tuesday would not say whether the House again will allow MDES to remain in limbo because of the advertising dispute. But he said: “We’re spending several million dollars a year without much accountability, if any at all. The House feels real strong about this.”

Bryant said he wants to move carefully on the immigration issue; he was elected last year on promises to be strict about undocumented workers.

During the regular session, legislators passed and Barbour signed a bill requiring employers to check workers’ immigration status using the federal government’s electronic verification system.

Although Barbour signed the bill into law, he issued a statement that sounded almost like a veto message, saying “the federal government itself has said E-Verify is not a reliable system.”

Bryant on Tuesday said he is “very firm” on keeping the E-Verify requirements.

“I think we’ve got to make sure that the penalties are in there for individuals that come here and use false ID’s and try to enter into a conspiracy with an employer to get a job,” Bryant said.