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Critics say Miss. House voter ID bill is too weak

A voter identification bill awaiting debate in the Mississippi House has provisions guaranteed to anger lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The bill would require people to show some sort of ID before casting a ballot, but Republican critics say it’s too weak because it doesn’t specify that the ID has to include a photo.

Some Democrats, including many members of the Legislative Black Caucus, say Mississippi shouldn’t require voters to show any type of ID before exercising a constitutional right. They point out that civil rights activists were harassed or killed decades ago to secure equal access to the ballot.

“It’s hard to get a consensus on issues that are very emotional,” House Elections Committee Chairman Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, said Tuesday after his committee passed the bill.

The bill moves to the full House for debate by the end of next week.

It also includes provisions to allow “no-excuses” early voting, following the lead of Arkansas and other states. In Mississippi, people need specific reasons for casting an early absentee ballot. College students who are away from their home precinct on election day, for example, are allowed to vote early.

A separate voter ID bill passed the Mississippi Senate in January. The two chambers eventually could try to reach a compromise or discussions about voter ID could fail, as they have done for more than a decade.

Tuesday was the first major deadline of the 2009 Mississippi legislative session, which began in early January and is set to end in early April. It was the last day for House and Senate committees to act on general bills filed in their own chamber.

Bills that survived, such as the House election proposal, move on for more debate.

Among the divisive proposals surviving Tuesday’s deadline is a bill to create a sex education program in two public school districts. If the program is successful, officials could expand it to other schools in the future.

“We have to do something different,” Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, wrote in an e-mail to constituents. “Mississippi now leads the nation in teen births.”

Republicans who said they’re tired of being ignored in the Democratic-controlled House tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to keep several bills alive. The bills would’ve regulated union elections, required more disclosure about the attorney general’s contracts with private attorneys, and required physicians, clergy members and others who know about sex crimes against children to report the crimes to law enforcement agencies.

Republicans tried to get a majority of the 122-member House to pull the bills out of committees against the wishes of the chairmen.

Circumventing a chairman is a rarely used option that’s designed to give a minority a greater voice in the legislative process. Lawmakers generally see it as a slap at the power of the leaders. A chairman can kill a bill simply by not bringing it up for debate.

In separate votes, a majority of House members rejected the Republicans’ efforts to pull the bills from committees.

Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon, leader of the House Republican Conference, said GOP lawmakers would use “all means necessary” to have their voices and their constituents’ voices heard at the Capitol.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said the bill requiring people to report knowledge of sex crimes against children was killed because it would’ve required clergy members and physicians to break confidentiality requirements in their jobs.

“Let’s leave their preacher out of it and let’s leave their doctor out of it,” Blackmon said.

The bill is House bill 1533.

Here’s a glance at the status of selected bills in the Mississippi Legislature. Tuesday was the deadline for House and Senate committees to act on general bills filed in their own chamber. There is a later deadline for budget and revenue bills.

ALIVE

SEX EDUCATION — House Bill 234 would allow the state to establish a sex education program in two public school districts.

FEES — House Bill 1338 would increase the fees charged by the state for driver’s licenses, motor vehicle titles and other services. Sex offenders also would pay higher fees for their mandated registration with the state.

HOMESTEAD EXEMPTION — Senate Bill 2300 would increase the homestead exemption from $75,000 to $100,000 for people who are over 65 or totally disabled.

UTILITY REGULATION — House Bill 1090 would give the three elected public service commissioners oversight of the public utilities staff, which was made a separate entity nearly two decades ago.

STATE JET — House Bill 1065 would authorize the state to sell an eight-seat Cessna Citation jet, often used by Gov. Haley Barbour and other officials.

STATE ADVERTISING — House Bill 1296 would set regulations for state agencies to meet for advertising in newspapers, on Web sites or on TV or radio.

CHARTER SCHOOLS — Senate Bill 2664 would reauthorize the state’s existing charter school law and establish two types of charter schools. One would be a public school that converts to operate under a charter granted by the state Board of Education while keeping a traditional attendance zone. The other would be a public school that could draw students from across school district lines after receiving a charter from the state board or a local school board.

SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY — Senate Bill 2628 would make it easier to fire superintendents and school board members, both appointed and elected. It also would allow any employee in a district that’s been taken over by the state to be fired. All employees would still receive due process, said State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, who is promoting the measure. House Bill 1142 has similar accountability provisions.

MEDICAID — House Bill 105 would keep the Division of Medicaid in operation.

EMBRYOS — House Bill 561 would authorize people to adopt embryos, either frozen or not.

DEAD

TUITION CAP — Senate Bill 2695 would’ve limited tuition increases at Mississippi’s eight public universities.

ATTORNEYS’ FEES — House Bill 1414 and Senate Bill 2718 would’ve required the attorney general to disclose more information about contracts for hiring private attorneys to do state work.

ARTS SCHOOL — House Bill 1555 would’ve moved the Mississippi School of the Arts out of Brookhaven and combined it with the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus.

SMOKING BAN — House Bill 169 would have banned smoking in most public places in Mississippi.