Legislature begins session Today

Published 2:56 pm Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Mississippi House is expected to work quickly on incentives for a Hattiesburg-area project that Gov. Haley Barbour will announce Tuesday shortly before lawmakers begin their 2011 session.

Leaders say the three-month gathering, the final regular session of the four-year term for legislators and Barbour, will be dominated by writing a budget and redrawing legislative district lines. The session begins at noon Tuesday at the Capitol.

“I know people inside that building are concerned about nothing more important than what their district lines look like,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said Monday. “But outside of that building, I think the general public’s worried about job creation — can we help move this economy forward? — and the budget — are we going to balance the budget or are we going to spend more money than we’re bringing in?”

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Leaders say writing a budget will be challenging because state revenues have been relatively weak as the economy recovers.

The 122 state House districts and 52 Senate districts have to be updated to reflect population changes between 2000 and 2010. Some legislators’ political careers could depend on whether they keep or lose most of their base of support.

The political balance of each chamber could also depend on redistricting. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate. Democrats have a more substantial numerical majority in the House, but an alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats could change the chamber’s style of leadership starting in 2012.

Fast-growing areas such as DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn., are expected to gain legislative seats. Areas with stagnant populations, such as parts of the Delta, could lose representation. Bryant said he wants to ignore the tradition of each chamber drawing its own districts.

Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy said in a separate interview Monday that Bryant should be “ashamed” of suggesting that the Senate have a say in House districts or the House in Senate districts.

“We’ve got a separation of powers in the state and the legislative branch has a separation of the two bodies,” McCoy said. McCoy said he believes the House will devise a fair plan for its own districts. If legislators can’t agree on a redistricting plan, new districts could be drawn by the courts. After the 2000 Census, lawmakers agreed on new districts for the state House and Senate but couldn’t agree on how to take Mississippi from five U.S. House seats to four — a move that was needed then because the state’s population grew more slowly than the populations of some other states. The four congressional districts eventually were drawn by a panel of federal judges.

Mississippi will keep its four congressional seats this decade, and legislative leaders say they think the districts will need only minor changes to account for shifting populations.

The bill for the economic development incentives will start Tuesday with Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“He is very interested in it,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Mississippi Development Authority would say Monday what the project will be. Kirby said the legislation is similar to bills the Legislature had passed previously to help with economic development projects. Kirby said the project will “create several high-paying jobs.”

On the first day of the 2010 session, lawmakers pushed through a $35 million incentive package to land a German pipe-making plant for the Delta.