The most talked about issue of the 125-day regular legislative session has been deferred to a special session called by first-year Gov. Haley Barbour.
nState lawmakers returned to Jackson May 19 to a ddress changes in the civil justice system.
“I pledged to call a special session — or special sessions — if that’s what it takes to pass comprehensive tort reform,” said Barbour, who made civil justice reform a top priority during the gubernatorial campaign last year. “I would have preferred for comprehensive tort reform to have been achieved during the regular session. Since it was not, this special session became necessary. It’s a very important issue for Mississippi because of the economic damage, because of the damage that has occurred in healthcare in our state.”
A special session costs approximately $50,000 the first day and close to $34,000 each following day. During a 2002 special session that lasted 83 days, lawmakers approved scant civil justice changes, which tort reform proponents called “only a beginning.”
During the regular session, which ended May 9, the House and Senate could not reach a compromise on the issue, primarily because of an impasse on a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. The Senate wanted to impose the cap; House leaders did not.
“There is strong support in the House for tort reform,” said Barbour. “Unfortunately, they never got a chance to vote on it. Support for tort reform cuts across party lines. It’s time to get tort reform done.”
Rep. Wanda Jennings (R-Southaven), said her main concern was “that we don’t try to negotiate all or nothing.”
Pete Smith, spokesman for the governor, confirmed that Barbour met with Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi), Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon (D-Canton) and other House and Senate leaders about tort reform, but declined to comment about what was said. Some reports had the governor leaving the caps on the table, if House members approved all other aspects of the Senate bill.
“Once the House takes a position on tort reform by voting, then differences can be worked out between the House and Senate, but first the House has to establish a position and House members haven’t been allowed to vote,” said Smith. “The governor has been adamant about passing comprehensive tort reform.”
If the caps issue is not addressed, the door remains open for excessive judgments, said Ron Aldridge, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB).
“Then we have nothing to hold the line on insurance rates,” he said. “If it’s good enough for the State of Mississippi and all the counties and cities to have caps protection of all kinds — economic, non-economic and punitive — all together at one amount, then surely we can look at limits for everyone else on the non-economic issues.”
Some Mississippians believe incorrectly that tort reform proponents want all damages capped, including actual damages, said Aldridge.
“That’s not the case,” he said. “We want people to be clear that those damages are still left wide open. Nobody is trying to cap that.”
Also, Barbour indicated that he would consider adding approximately $300 million in bond bills for higher education institutions and economic development projects to the special session agenda. The bond bills died during the regular session.
Business leaders consider the Mississippi Comprehensive Workforce Training and Education Consolidation Act of 2004 the centerpiece of business legislation passed during the regular session, which will streamline and improve the state’s workforce delivery system.
“With this law, Mississippi abandons what could be described as almost a confusing labyrinth of service agencies delivering workforce training into a single, comprehensive system,” said Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson. “We appreciate the commitment of Gov. Barbour in developing the original plan and of the leaders of the legislative conferees — Reps. Johnny Stringer, Cecil Brown and Herb Frierson and Sens. Tommy Robertson, Stacey Pickering and John Horhn — in working out the final bill. This is a very strong step for improving our state’s economic development opportunities.”
Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA) spokesman Mark Leggett said a companion bill to the workforce training act allows for tax credits that would encourage manufacturers and other businesses to upgrade their workforce.
“It gives us a better chance of keeping jobs in the state that might be on the bubble,” he said.
When Barbour signed legislation to create the Revised Uniform Partnership Act (Senate Bill 2504), Mississippi became the 36th state to conform its law regarding business partnerships to national standards. Some of the existing partnership laws in the state were based on the 1914 version of the Uniform Partnership Act. Under the new law, a partnership is established “as a separate legal entity, and not merely as an aggregate of the partners.”
House Bill 972 authorized technical changes to the Mississippi Business Corporation Act. New sections added by the bill clarify existing law by defining previously undefined terms. It also includes a provision that allows corporations to save money by delivering annual financial statements to shareholders via e-mail.
“Work on this type of legislation is important to creating a strong business climate in our state,” said Secretary of State Eric Clark, whose Business Law Advisory Group recommended the improvements to Mississippi’s business laws.
Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) spokesman Scott Hamilton said department leaders were very pleased that funding for tourism development was kept at last year’s level.
“The legislation state lawmakers passed allowing tax credits for film production will also help in economic development,” he said.
SB 3177, also approved by the governor, exempts nonprofit entities that operate technology incubators, and some startup companies that are its tenants, from ad valorem taxes. The bill also exempts the Mississippi Technology Alliance from sales tax.
Beginning July 1, small business owners will be able to charge a $40 service fee for returned checks, the same amount charged by the government (SB 2911). The maximum limit private businesses have been able to charge is $30.
“Another big help for businesses is a new bill (HB 992) approved by the governor that allows for a quicker transfer of titles for motor vehicles and manufactured housing — 72 hours versus up to six weeks,” said Aldridge. “There is a charge for the expedited service, but it will help.”
SB 3085, which died in the House Ways and Means Committee, would have allowed pollution control equipment that is mandated by federal or state law or regulation to be exempt from ad valorem taxes. MMA lobbied for the legislation, which would have greatly benefited manufacturers, it said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.