Miss. lawmakers open session with history lessons

Published 1:01 am Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers face a shaky economy, a tightly stretched budget and the potential for bitter partisanship over issues such as voter identification, but they received history lessons Tuesday to put their problems in perspective.

Opening their 2009 session with ceremonies at the freshly renovated Old Capitol museum in downtown Jackson, members of the House and Senate were shown a pair of .44-caliber pistols once owned by another famous Mississippi politician — Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy.

The pistols were used for dueling, a practice so pervasive in the 19th century that it eventually was prohibited by a series of state laws, said Rep. Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive. Until voters repealed the provision in 1978, the state constitution also had a ban on the outmoded practice.

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“As long as we can still wrestle, as long as we still can throw chairs, we’ll find a way to resolve our differences,” Warren joked, drawing laughter from his colleagues.

Former Gov. William Winter told lawmakers about the dire condition of Mississippi’s finances in 1932, when his father, William Aylmer Winter, served in the state Senate. The state owed $6 million but had only $1,326 in its treasury, the former governor said. Lawmakers had to sign IOU’s to pay for their meals and hotel bills, and the state borrowed $750 from a local bank to buy postage stamps for tax forms.

“We came out of the Depression. We came out of it, frankly, by refusing to give in to it,” said Winter, an 85-year-old Democrat.

Legislators spent only about an hour Tuesday at the Old Capitol, which was used as the statehouse from 1839 until a larger Capitol opened a few blocks away in 1903 on the site of the former state penitentiary.

The Old Capitol was badly damaged by rain when Hurricane Katrina peeled off part of its copper roof in 2005. The museum has undergone a $16.5 million renovation and will reopen to the public on Feb. 7.

Legislators will spend the rest of their three-month session in their usual place of business, the 106-year-old “new” Capitol.

Starting Wednesday, many legislators will get their first detailed look at how a shortfall in tax collections has already forced 2 percent cuts in the $5 billion budget for the current year. They’ll also start sifting through a multitude of spending requests for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The current governor, Haley Barbour, called on legislators to take their duties seriously.

“We must all join together to do right in these difficult times,” the Republican governor said.

Officials noted that the 2009 Legislature is significantly more diverse than the last, all-white, all-male group of lawmakers that met in the Old Capitol more than a century ago. Fifty of the 174 current legislators are black, and about two dozen are women.