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Gunn says he’s pleased with first two months of session

March 19th, 2012 No comments

Speaker Phillip Gunn said Monday afternoon that he was generally pleased with the bills the House sent to the Senate before last week’s deadline to do so.

Gunn was the speaker at the lunch meeting of the Stennis Capital Press Corps.

Gunn referred just more than 1,500 bills to House committees. Of those, 268 survived the committee deadline; about 150 survived the deadline for floor action and were sent to the Senate.

“We were able to get out of the House every bill that we wanted to,” Gunn said.

Not without controversy, though. Two days before last Thursday’s floor deadline, House Democrats began to request that a handful of bills be read aloud in the chamber before they were voted on. That caused a few late nights and early mornings before the disagreement among Democrats and Republicans was ironed out. Gunn did not provide details of what brought about the consternation, nor what was done to solve it.

Democrats were especially upset over bills involving illegal immigration reform, restrictions on abortion and the establishment of voter ID, to go with legislation curtailing Attorney General Jim Hood’s power to lead litigation on behalf of the state.

“Disagreement isn’t the problem,” said Gunn, in his first extended meeting with the media since he took over as Speaker in early January. “Not being able to reconcile those disagreements is a problem. We’re going to continue to have disagreements and spats, but as long as we can act like adults we’ll be fine.”

Gunn didn’t sound all that surprised at the sound and fury over the Republicans’ favored bills.

“There are a lot of policy issues Republicans have fought for that they couldn’t get to the floor (when Democrats controlled the House),” he said. Of the GOP takeover of the House, Gunn said, “I think it sends a signal that people want to see change.”

With the first few deadlines relating to general bills gone, leadership in both parties will soon turn their attention to the budget-writing process, something that hasn’t gone smoothly the past few sessions. The bill-reading maneuver Democrats employed is likely to be used again when it comes time to actually pass budget bills. With revenue bills requiring a three-fifths vote in each chamber to pass, there’ll have to be some serious deal-making going on.

Bill temporarily removing Personnel Board oversight passes Senate

March 15th, 2012 No comments

The Senate passed Thursday morning a bill that would remove for two years State Personnel Board restrictions on agency heads’ ability to terminate employees.

It’s the fourth consecutive session the bill has been introduced. It passed on a 29-19 vote.

Supporters of the legislation called it a critical cost-saving measure. Opponents said it would hand too much authority to agency heads, who would be free to terminate employees without having to go through Personnel Board procedures beforehand. It would also eliminate Board-administered recourse terminated employees.

The bill also institutes a four-year hiring freeze.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, expressed concern that should an agency employee choose to take another job, the agency could not fill that position because under the terms of the bill, that position had been eliminated. Original language in the bill said that position could not be filled within the two-year window, but an amendment adopted stretched that to four years.

Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, didn’t deny that could be possible. “I hope that doesn’t happen,” he said. “If that’s the case, (agency heads) will have to come back to this Legislature and ask us to change it.”

Brown also didn’t deny that it was likely some state workers could lose their jobs.

“All we’re trying to do is save money,” he said. “We’ve cut these agencies and cut them and cut them. We’re to the point now that we’re digging into the bone. These agencies have to have some relief. This is a huge method of doing it.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said the claims that Reduction in Force procedures the Personnel Board oversaw related to employee termination were burdensome red tap were not true.

“On average, the entire process took 12 days,” he said. “Who gets hired should be based on what they know, not who they know. If you eliminate the Personnel Board, that’s what will happen. This is about politics. This is not going to save money.”

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Regulatory, local option bills clear Senate

March 13th, 2012 No comments

A little more than 48 hours until the deadline for floor action on bills that have made it out of committee, the House spent much of Tuesday morning debating a bill that would require doctors performing physicians to have admitting privileges at hospitals. The bill passed 80-37, but not before reigniting the worst parts of last fall’s Personhood debate.

The Senate, on the other hand, passed a handful of bills that have been watched closely by business groups and their advocates. One of those was the Mississippi Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Act. 

The bill establishes a committee whose membership would include small business owners to review new and existing regulations, in an effort to make them less of a burden. This has been a priority for Ron Aldridge, head of the Mississippi National Federation of Independent Businesses, which lobbies for small business issues. Gov. Phil Bryant also made it part of his legislative agenda.

The Senate also approved a local option bill that would allow cities whose populations are greater than 6,000 (or if the city has fewer than 6,000 people but serves as a county seat) to vote to come out from under countywide dry laws. The process could not start until 20 percent of a city or town’s electorate signed a petition to put the issue on the ballot.

If approved, the bill would allow alcohol by the glass to be served in restaurants and hotels within the municipality, or at places that already have an on-premises retail permit. The permit requirement, offered in an amendment by Pearl Republican Sen. Dean Kirby, would make it almost impossible for new retailers (like liquor stores) to locate in newly wet cities and towns.

If the vote fails, the issue could not be revisited on the ballot for at least another two years. Probably the best thing this bill would do — besides putting the power in the hands of the cities and not the Legislature — is stop the endless parade each session of cities seeking permission to hold a vote to repeal their counties’ dry laws.

The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association had been the bill’s most ardent supporter.

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Beer ABW bill clears the Senate

March 12th, 2012 No comments

Bills that would raise the alcohol-by-weight limit in beer in Mississippi from 5 percent to 8 percent have cleared the House and the Senate, clearing the way for whatever differences the two chambers have over the legislation to be ironed out in conference committee.

The Senate, by a vote of 37-14, followed the House’s lead and passed its own version of the bill Monday afternoon, three days before the floor deadline, which means that have already cleared committee have to pass the floor of the originating chamber or die.

This is big news for Raise Your Pints and other supporters of the craft beer movement. The bills in each chamber have received enough bipartisan support that there’s not much of a chance either of the bills will die in conference. Like Rep. Hank Zuber did in the House, Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, made the bill about tourism and economic development, not alcohol, when he presented it to the Senate.

Whoever the conferees are from each chamber should continue to beat that drum.

Alcohol content bill advances, alcohol sales bill dies

March 6th, 2012 1 comment

House Bill 1422, which would raise the alcohol-by-weight limit in beer made and sold in Mississippi from 5 percent to 8 percent, had the motion to reconsider taken off it Tuesday afternoon.

It now heads to the Senate.

The bill cleared the House late last week, but had been held on the motion to reconsider since then.

This is more of a technical hurdle than anything else; the bill was never in danger of dying in the House because 22 representatives would have had to change their vote.

Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, who presented the ABW bill, didn’t have similar luck with HB 928, which would have given blanket permission for cities in dry counties to pursue an alcohol sales referendum, given that 20 percent of the electorate signed a petition to do so. It failed by one vote, 59-60.

That bill would have effectively stopped the parade of municipalities in dry counties that converge on the Capitol every year looking for permission to hold a referendum on the sale of alcohol. (A good example of that is Senatobia, which sits in dry Tate County. Senatobia got what it wanted; the bill allowing referendum procedures to move ahead passed the House right after 928 failed, and now heads to the Senate.)

That’s a perfect illustration of the point Zuber made presenting the alcohol sales bill.

“We decide which cities will be winners and losers when it comes to alcohol, and it’s usually based on which city has political connections,” he said. “Let’s stop that practice and let the people back home decide.”

Hosemann ‘hopeful’ last two business law reform bills meet committee deadline

March 5th, 2012 No comments

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann is batting almost .1000 on his business reform proposals making it out of committee before Tuesday’s deadline.

Of Hosemann’s half-dozen or so bills, all but two have already been sent to the House floor. The two that haven’t – a relocation tax credit for businesses that move their headquarters here, and an expansion tax credit for businesses already headquartered here — were both double referred. They have cleared the Workforce Development Committee, and currently sit in the Ways and Means Committee. If they don’t clear Ways and Means by tomorrow, they’ll be dead for this session.

Speaking at Monday’s meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps, Hosemann said he was “hopeful” both would clear committee deadline by the end of tomorrow.

“We’ll be at the capitol (Monday and Tuesday) to do our best to make sure they both make it out,” Hosemann said.

Among the proposals that have already cleared committee are bills that would:

  • Offer businesses that contract with Mississippi universities for research a 7 percent tax credit, to be applied toward the amount of the research contract
  • Allow companies that have earned job-creation tax credits but have no earned income to actually, to pass those credits through to employees
  • Amend the Mississippi Business Incorporation Act to adopt changes in the Model Business Act; incorporates electronic technology concepts; and addresses indemnification and reinstatement of foreign companies.

Ways and Means will hold a meeting Monday at 3, one hour before the House of Representatives convenes. I’ll be at the meeting and will file an update when it’s over, so stay tuned.

UPDATE: With no discussion on either, the committee approved the bills, sending them to the House floor.

Craft beer supporters finally experience success at the Capitol

March 1st, 2012 No comments

The House of Representatives voted Thursday afternoon to send HB 1422 to the Senate.

The bill would raise the alcohol-by-weight content in beer made and sold in Mississippi from 5 percent to 8 percent. The current 5 percent cap is the lowest in the U.S.

The bill cleared the House 67-45, with only moderate opposition shown while Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, was presenting it. Most of that opposition had to do with whether beer with a higher alcohol content could lead to an increase in alcohol-related deaths and/or DUIs. Zuber cited data from Ohio and Alabama that said neither was the case. The bill was held on a motion to reconsider, which will delay it being sent to the Senate, though it’s not very likely that will keep it from passing because 22 representatives would have to switch their votes once the bill is called up again.

Similar bills with Republican authors and co-sponsors have cleared committee and await debate on the Senate floor. Gov. Phil Bryant told the MBJ about a month ago that he was “not necessarily opposed” to the notion of raising the ABW cap to 8 percent.

While the bill is a long way from becoming law, this is no small victory for supporters of this measure. Raise Your Pints deserves a huge amount of credit for sticking with the issue, which has been dead on arrival once it reached committee the past few sessions. This is a textbook example of how to sell a piece of legislation. Supporters made this about economic development — specifically, tourism and sales tax revenue – and not alchohol. Once they did that, the longstanding opposition to it gradually faded.

I have messages out to a few Raise Your Pints people and Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who as a member of the Senate the past few years has made this one of his pet projects. I’ll update this post when I hear from either.

UPDATE: Raise Your Pints president Butch Bailey, who just called, was surprised the House even took up the bill today, seeing as how it had already met the committee deadline and was on the House floor comfortably before the next deadline.

“I was up here for the committee vote in the Senate,” Bailey said, referring to a similar bill clearing the Economic Development Committee earlier Thursday, “but I stayed around on the off chance that the House would take it up.”

He’s glad he did. “This is just one step in the process, obviously, but I’m grateful. Really grateful, especially since it passed by the margin (22 votes) that it did.”

Bailey said he and other folks connected to RYP are still making their case to Senators, who could take up their own version of the bill Friday.

Beckett: PSC jurisdiction will be included in HB 825

February 29th, 2012 No comments

The House Public Utilities Committee Wednesday morning tabled HB 825, a bill that has caused quite a bit of hue and cry over the past few days.

Most of that has come from members of the Public Service Commission, who were upset that it would strip them of jurisdiction over customer complaints related to AT&T. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley and Southern District Commissioner Leonard Bentz have led the charge on that front.

Public Utilities chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said he hoped to hold another committee meeting Thursday afternoon after the House adjourns to take it up again. The committee decided to table the bill after a flurry of amendments.

Beckett told reporters that the PSC regaining jurisdiction over AT&T customer complaints will be “part of the deal” in any version of the bill that eventually clears committee and is sent to the House floor.

“That’s their biggest concern, and it’s the biggest concern I’ve heard from other members,” Beckett said.

What the bill does not do is require AT&T to serve as a “carrier of last resort” in rural areas. It also doesn’t require AT&T to file service data with the PSC.

“It’s a competitive market,” Beckett said. “I don’t see them (AT&T) going out here and flipping the switch and unhooking customers. I think they’ll continue to provide that, and as technology changes I think there will be more and more opportunities for people to get service.”

Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, declined to talk to reporters Wednesday morning.

Bentz, Presley agree: AT&T oversight removal bill bad business

February 24th, 2012 1 comment

The Mississippi Public Service Commission is not particularly known for agreeing on a whole lot.

The opposite of that is true when it comes to House Bill 825. The bill, filed by Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, has been referred to the Public Utilities Committee, which Beckett chairs.

What the bill would do is essentially remove a lot of functions AT&T performs from PSC jurisdiction. Television and radio stations already enjoy this exemption. The legislation would extend it to AT&T, and shift that oversight to the federal government. That’s the simple explanation, anyway.

Commissioners Leonard Bentz, a Republican who represents the Southern District; and Brandon Presley, a Democrat representing the Northern District, both have issued lengthy statements that generally paint the bill as one of the worst ideas to circulate around the Capitol in some time. That’s significant, because Bentz and Presley don’t see eye to eye all that often.

Presley called it a “corporate wish list.” Bentz said it would make AT&T’s customer service operations — which have become infamous for their ability to frustrate customers — worse.

One thing is certain. Beckett, since he wrote the bill, will surely air it in front of the Public Utilities Committee. You can bet there will be some lawmakers who hear from folks who don’t like this.

Statements in full from Bentz and Presley:

Public Service Commission Chairman Leonard Bentz announced today his opposition to HB 825, which would remove all oversight which the Mississippi Public Service Commission has over AT&T.

 “This is a very bad bill for consumers in Mississippi,” Commissioner Bentz stated. “Even though AT&T will tell you that the oversight that we [PSC] have is limited, the little we do have is piece of mind for the consumers.”

“You don’t have to think very long to understand why this bill is bad. Think back to last time you called in a problem to AT&T and the lack of customer service you received. This bill would make it worse. It is important to understand AT&T will lead you to believe this bill will affect only a small number of customers, but that is not so. As it stands right now, all customers with AT&T have the ability to file complaints with the Public Service Commission, and have the PSC on their side to help them navigate the system. The bill clearly states customer appeals will be removed from the PSC jurisdiction.

“Further, AT&T states they are at a competitive disadvantage. How can you be at a disadvantage when you own more infrastructure and receive more Universal Service Fund monies than any other telecommunication company? The bill would also limit the Commission’s oversight of the Universal Service Fund. This is a critical fund in which AT&T receives monies to invest in their infrastructure. In the proposed bill this would give the oversight to the federal government,” Bentz added.

“The avenue for customer complaint appeals to the PSC will also be removed. I guess if a consumer had a complaint they could call the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  If AT&T can explain to me how this bill will build better customer service by calling a Washington bureaucrat versus an elected Mississippian, I will be their biggest cheerleader,” Bentz said.

“I hope legislators reviewing this AT&T bill (HB 825) will contact the PSC and give us an opportunity for input. AT&T employs great employees in Mississippi and I am sure they will tell you AT&T has become more and more like a corporate run robot organization. If AT&T wants a competitive advantage, I have three recommendations. Provide a quality service, listen to your customers and treat your customers as clients. And that does not take any legislation to accomplish.” Bentz concluded.

And here’s Presley’s:

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said today that House Bill 825 would totally strip the PSC of any authority to hold AT&T accountable for rate increases and lousy landline and cell phone coverage. Presley said the bill was requested by AT&T as retaliation against the PSC for denying a rate increase and for complaining of poor cellular and residential phone service. The PSC won a case in the Mississippi Supreme Court to limit charges to customers after AT&T appealed the PSC’s ruling.

“This bill is a corporate wish list that gives AT&T the permission to run over and take advantage of every single customer in Mississippi and no one can say one thing to them about it.” Presley said. “Complaints against AT&T have gone up dramatically over the past few years, yet this bill rewards them by taking the cop off the beat that is there to protect customers”

“It is hard to believe that the Legislature could honestly think that a company with such a terrible track record should be taken out from under the PSC’s authority” Presley added.

Presley said the Legislature passed the first phase of deregulation in 2006 an since then complaints to the Commission about billing errors, poor service and the like have risen from 1,735 in 2006 to 4,361 in 2011 an increase of over 150% .“This is evidence enough of why this bill is bad for consumers”.

Along with removing all of the Public Service Commission’s authority to investigate abuses, extortion and customer complaints, House Bill 825 also removes the Commission’s authority to designate conditions for AT&T’s receiving of millions in federal funds to promote rural cell phone service. Presley said the Commission’s authority to place conditions on those dollars has been the main tool to increase cell phone coverage in rural counties. “Rural Mississippi’s interest are gutted in this bill.” Presley said.

Presley said there should be extensive hearings held on this matter. “AT&T and their high paid lobbyists are spreading lies all around the Capitol, the Legislature should listen to the regulators who are here to protect the public.”

Moak drops initiative hint

February 20th, 2012 No comments

House Minority Leader Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, dropped a strong hint at today’s meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps that Democrats could turn to the voter initiative process to advance some of their policies.

“The initiative and referendum process is a great tool for the minority,” Moak told the 40 or so people at the Capitol Club.

Moak, like everybody else, noticed during last fall’s elections that the three initiatives on the ballot generated more conversation than any of the candidates, including those running for statewide office. “They drove up turnout in a lot of places,” Moak said.

I asked Moak what issues Democratic officials were considering for the initiative process. He wouldn’t say. He wouldn’t give the slightest hint. Just a guess, but there has been some casual talk in the past about an effort to insert into Mississippi’s Constitution an amendment that would mandate the full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program every year. MAEP is the formula that determines how much state funding each school district gets every fiscal year.

Full funding of education, mental health services and Medicaid will be top priorities for Democrats come budget time. Moak said as much Monday. “We should take care of the basic needs and we can fight over everything else.”

It’s a possibility if Democrats lose that fight at the Capitol, they’ll at least try to win it with an initiative or two.