School oversight, sex ed bills move forward

February 13, 2009



JACKSON -- The House and Senate have passed separate versions of the "Children First Act" being lauded by the state''s school superintendent as a major step to aid underperforming schools. 


The legislation would consolidate all failing school systems into a newly created Mississippi Recovery School District. Local school superintendents and boards would be controlled by a director at the state Department of Education. 


The Senate passed its bill Thursday. The House did its version Monday. They''ll work out a final bill later. 


"This is a great day for Mississippi''s children and a great day for Mississippi. The passage of the Children First Act of 2009 by both chambers represents a giant step forward for education in Mississippi," state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds said in a statement he issued Thursday. 


Among other bills passing Thursday was a House measure to implement a sex-education program in two schools to test the effect on Mississippi''s high teen birth rate. 


Bills to better fund the state''s Medicaid program with a state hospital tax and federal economic-stimulus funds received the House''s approval Thursday. The House also voted to eliminate Gov. Haley Barbour''s controversial requirement that recipients have annual visits with state eligibility officers. 


The House also approved a bill authorizing the state to pay up to $500,000 to innocent people wrongly convicted of felonies. This reparation would be for what legislators declared is "the substantial horror of being imprisoned for a crime one did not commit." The measure was prompted by separate cases in Noxubee County where two men were convicted and imprisoned for years for murdering two young girls. They were cleared last year when evidence surfaced they weren''t guilty. "Mississippi is recognizing she has had a problem and has wrongfully incarcerated individuals," said Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, chief sponsor of the legislation.  


The bills were among the scores of measures the Legislature took up Thursday as it completed the first phase of its annual three-month session. Thursday was the deadline for the House and Senate to pass the initial versions of their bills. 


The two legislative chambers will now exchange about 500 bills as they work to pass final versions by early April for Barbour to approve or reject. 


With the passage of Thursday''s legislative deadline to approve general bills, the House and Senate will now focus on cranking out the first drafts of budget and revenue bills. They must be finished by Feb. 25 to advance to the next step of the Legislature''s deadline-driven lawmaking process. 


In other action Thursday, the House voted to generate more revenue to upgrade the Mississippi Crime Lab. The bill would increase fines imposed on people convicted of crimes, including drunk driving and illegal hunting. The bill adds $13 to the various fines imposed on offenders, with the revenues generated going to the crime lab. 


Lack of funds there for testing evidence has impeded the abilities of Mississippi''s law-enforcement officers and criminal prosecutors to nab and convict crooks, according to state Attorney General Jim Hood and others voicing concerns about the state crime lab''s operations. 


Another House bill that passed Thursday would exempt schoolchildren from state-required vaccinations if their doctors recommend they shouldn''t have the shots. The legislation is in response to parents who believe vaccines cause autism in children. 


The House''s action came the same day a Washington, D.C.-based court ruled the shots are not to blame. A U.S. Court of Claims panel Thursday said overwhelming evidence backed by years of science found no risk. 


The House and Senate did defeat some bills that came up for floor votes that sharply divided lawmakers. Among them was a measure declaring as "unconscionable" any arbitration clause contained in service or purchase contracts. 


Legislators for the bill said consumers unknowingly sign binding arbitration clauses and give up rights to sue when there''s a dispute, but the House voted 68-50 against the bill after being told banks and stock-brokerage firms would stop doing business in Mississippi if the bill became law. 


The House also voted 65-54 against a bill banning children under age 18 from working at a job after 10 p.m. 


In other action in the House -- which worked until 9 p.m. Thursday -- a bill was rejected to require teachers to tell police if they suspect co-workers are having sex with students. The House voted 62-60 to kill the bill at the urging of House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. 


He said imposing such a reporting mandate on teachers could cultivate a "police state" in schools with "people spying on each other" and making false claims of sexual misconduct.