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.

Hood: Justices in the majority have to agree: Barbour pardons an abuse of power

March 9th, 2012 No comments

Attorney General Jim Hood entertained questions from reporters in his office Friday afternoon about the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the scores of pardons issued by former Gov. Haley Barbour.

He didn’t reveal much beyond what he said in a statement Thursday afternoon. He was disappointed with the ruling. He thinks it sets a dangerous constitutional precedent regarding the separation of powers among the three branches of government. And, he plans on pursuing a ballot initiative to strengthen the newspaper publication requirement related to the pardon process.

Hood did say that if various victims’ rights and law enforcement organizations would prefer a pardon review board be put in place — something several states have — instead of using the ballot initiative to simply force the state’s high court to enforce the publication clause, he would go along with that. He also said more than once that folks who think that Barbour was within his rights to issue as many pardons as he did, would be hard-pressed to deny that it wasn’t an abuse of power.

“Even the justices who voted with the majority realize that,” Hood said.

As for the initiative, Hood wasn’t sure which ballot would be the earliest the initiative could potentially be on. With roughly 120,000 signatures from the five old Congressional districts needed, it would be impossible to get the issue before lawmakers for them to put on November’s ballot before the session ends in late April. After November, Mississippi’s next statewide election will be in 2015.

There is one remedy still available to Hood. He could file a motion for re-hearing, which would entail asking the same court that ruled against him Thursday to reconsider its decision. Hood didn’t slam the door shut on that possibility; he didn’t sound very likely to actually do it, either. Such motions are almost never granted.

State Supreme Court rules Barbour’s pardons are valid

March 8th, 2012 No comments

In its list of hand downs Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld former Gov. Haley Barbour’s pardons.

The Court, split 6-3, ruled that it had no jurisdiction to review Barbour’s decision, because doing so would violate separation of powers.

“This case is about whether this Supreme Court has the right, authority, and power to declare itself superior to, and above, both the other two branches of government in all matters of constitutional compliance. While this Court clearly has the constitutional duty to interpret the content of laws passed by the Legislature and executive orders issued by the governor, we decline – as have so many other courts before us – to assume for ourselves the absolute power to police the other branches of government in fulfilling their constitutional duties to produce laws and executive orders, unless there is alleged a justiciable violation of a personal right,” Justice Jess Dickenson, writing for the majority, said in the opinion.

In all, Barbour issued 198 pardons, 26 of which applied to inmates who were incarcerated at the time. Some of those 26 received conditional clemency or were released to keep the state from having to pay their extensive medical bills. The others had already completed their sentences, and had been free in some cases for several years.

Attorney General Jim Hood argued that only two dozen or so of the pardoned had met the newspaper publication requirement, which required notice 30 days in advance that an inmate was seeking a gubernatorial pardon. He made that the centerpiece of his argument in January in front of Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green, who issued an injunction temporarily invalidating the pardons, and in early February in front of all nine of the Supreme Court justices. Green’s injunction ordered those who were incarcerated to remain in custody until appeals were exhausted.

Hood concentrated on five inmates who served as trusties at the Governor’s Mansion during Barbour’s time there, all of whom had been convicted of murder. They had already been released from confinement by the time Green issued the injunction. Each was ordered to maintain regular contact with the Mississippi Department of Corrections while the appeals played out. One, Joseph Ozment, remained missing for several days before being found in Wyoming.

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.

Beef Plant lawsuit enters last pre-trial stages

February 28th, 2012 No comments

The pre-trial phase of the Beef Plant litigation is about to end.

The state and the private counsel it hired is suing Georgia-based Facilities Group, in an attempt to recoup the roughly $55 million the state lost when the cull cattle facility in Oakland failed. Facilities Group was brought on board to manage the construction of the plant. Three of its executives were eventually convicted of making an illegal gratuity to former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s campaign.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd took two motions under advisement at a hearing Monday. Lawyers for the Facilities Group argued a motion for summary judgment, which would effectively throw out the case.  Plaintiffs argued a motion to give them possession of the records from the grand jury proceedings that led to the indictment of the Facilities Group executives and Richard Hall, who the state hired to run the facility.

Kidd didn’t rule on either motion Monday, but said he would by late this week or early next week. The trial is scheduled to start March 19.

Dorsey Carson, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview Tuesday morning that two mediation sessions have failed to render a settlement. Carson didn’t sound optimistic one would be reached before it’s time to pick the jury.

“Both sides have exchanged offers but frankly I don’t think they are going to come up with enough money (to settle it),” Carson said.

It’s likely settlement talks will take on a keen sense of urgency if Kidd denies the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, which represents their last chance to terminate the litigation short of settling. If March 19 arrives and there’s still no agreement, negotiations will probably get super serious.