A bit of filler in 2010 Miss. session

Published 1:18 pm Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mississippi lawmakers knew going into the 2010 legislative session that money was indeed an object, a continually shrinking one.

It’s not surprising they didn’t waste a lot of time during the 90-day session debating new programs with costly price tags. There was barely enough money to pay for the programs already in place.

Mississippi’s revenue collections had seen month-over-month declines for a year and a half, and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour had taken a scalpel more than once to the current budget.

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Lawmakers started a 3 1/2-week break in late March to await congressional action on another round of federal stimulus funding that would include $187 million for Mississippi. After returning April 21, they approved a $5.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It includes a contingency plan for the yet-unapproved $187 million.

Before the budget was finished, however, lawmakers kept busy part of the time with other stuff that looked suspiciously like filler.

Some of the topics drew headlines before the session’s start, even though key lawmakers knew the issues were dead on arrival. Those included attempts to give Mississippi University for Women a gender-neutral name and a Barbour proposal to consolidate Mississippi’s eight public universities into five.

Others had minimal impact on the lives of average Mississippians or, as some might argue, were fleeting attention-grabbers.

Here’s a random sampling:

— The Democratic-led House passed a bill to sell a state jet often used by Barbour, with proponents touting the sale as a way to boost state coffers by about $2.7 million. The bill died in a committee in the Republican-led Senate.

A similar, unsuccessful attempt was made during the 2009 session. Most Capitol watchers would argue that kind of bill is essentially a partisan dig, and usually amounts to little more than watercooler fodder.

— The Legislature approved and Barbour signed a bill to name a segment of road in memory of country music singer Tammy Wynette. The 17-mile stretch is in Itawamba County, where Wynette was born. The singer died in 1998. Legislators in 1992 had named the same roadway, the Tammy Wynette Highway. The new law adds the word “memorial.”

— The House and Senate passed a resolution forming the Mississippi Legislative Prayer Caucus. It was patterned after the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which began in 2005 to pray for the nation.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said the group will pray for constituents’ concerns and the Lord’s guidance as lawmakers work at the Capitol.

By no means was prayer absent from the Capitol before the group formed. Each day, shortly after the House and Senate convened, a lawmaker or a hand-picked member of the clergy prayed with and for the elected officials.

— A bill that proposed shrinking the size of the Legislature to save taxpayer dollars saw some activity in the Senate, but never made it to the House. The measure would have permanently reduced the number of lawmakers beginning January 2012, cutting the Senate from 52 members to 47. The House would’ve dropped from 122 to 110.

The bill initially survived the Senate Elections Committee, which passed an amended version. The full chamber voted to send the proposal back to the committee, which effectively killed it.

— Some lawmakers were vocal advocates of a bill that sought to reduce their pay from $10,000 to $9,000 — a 10 percent cut — for only one year. Others? Well, not so much.

The bill passed the Senate with only two votes against it. In the House, the measure was referred to the Appropriations Committee and the Fees and Salaries Committee, never to be seen again.