Bill would protect tobacco trust fund
Legislation to stop lawmakers from raiding Mississippi's tobacco trust fund to solve budget woes was among hundreds of bills introduced before Monday's filing deadline in the 2002 Legislature.
The proposal says the trust fund money, which stands at $860 million, shall not be spent by the Legislature.
"The tobacco fund is a savings for a future generation of health needs,'' said Rep. George Flaggs Jr., D-Vicksburg, who co-authored the House Concurrent Resolution with Rep. J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis.
But with Mississippi, like many other states, battling a recession and budget shortfalls, it's been a tempting source of revenue, he said. "Tennessee balanced its budget on it. California gutted the fund,'' Flaggs said.
The resolution proposes an amendment to the Mississippi Constitution to protect the tobacco trust fund. If approved, the measure would need the OK of voters in November.
Attorney General Mike Moore, whose landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry resulted in the trust fund, said he's "very concerned'' some officials want to drain the fund.
Money shortages "put us in jeopardy of losing the trust fund,'' Moore said Monday night. "I will fight to keep the trust fund safe.''
Some lawmakers, however, are proposing to use a portion of the annual payments to the trust fund to help wipe out the $124.6 million Medicaid deficit that could climb to $150 million by June 30. House Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Bobby Moody said Monday the legislation would provide for the money to be repaid within a certain amount of time.
The legislation was expected to be among the 600 pieces of House legislation filed during Monday's rush for submitting bills and constitutional amendments.
Other proposals deal with such diverse topics as violent video games, specialized license tags and terrorism.
The number of bills filed this session could exceed the 1,300 bills filed in the Senate and 1,750 in the House last year, officials say.
Among the other bills beating the deadline in the House on Monday was a proposal to create a Mississippi commission to organize activities to honor the legacy of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"We're not asking for (state) money'' to pay for it, said Rep. Mary Coleman, D-Jackson, who filed the bill on America's holiday to celebrate the birthday of the civil-rights leader.
Also just beating the deadline, Rep. Jay Eads, D-Oxford, filed a bill to create a Mississippi education progress board to measure results in school systems â€” from kindergarten through graduate studies.
It follows up a recommendation earlier this month by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's 40-member task force on higher education that included business leaders and educators.
"It will take the big-picture view of education in this state,'' Eads said, with the board to make annual reports to the Legislature.
The governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker plus education leaders and citizens will serve on the panel.
Another last-minute bill was filed by Rep. Billy Broomfield, D-Moss Point. It calls for issuance of distinctive Mississippi motor vehicle license tags to Free and Accepted Masons for an additional annual fee of $30.
It's an issue close to home for Broomfield, grand master of the Masons in Mississippi, which lists 1,700 members. Operating in 38 states, members of the local organization contribute to the Mississippi Firefighters Burn Center in Greenville.
The license tag will display the Prince Hall Grand Lodge emblem.
Some lawmakers have filed bills reflecting today's headlines.
Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Gulfport, has introduced a bill known as the "Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002.''
His bill makes it a crime to make a terrorist threat, solicit or provide support for an act of terrorism or hinder in the prosecution of terrorism.
Simpson said he filed the bill in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon. "I modeled the bill after New York legislation,'' he said.
Other bills filed in recent days include one authored by Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, to prohibit dissemination of violent video games to juveniles.
Studies "have proven these games are violent. They show decapitation and dismemberment and can lead to more aggressive behavior among young people,'' Tollison said. "It desensitizes children and makes them more hostile.''
The legislation says people or businesses offering any video game or computer game for sale or rent must make the most recent rating system available from the independent Entertainment Software Rating Board. It would be like movie ratings, Tollison said.
Games with an "M'' rating, for mature, could not be bought, rented or played in an arcade by children under 17 unless the child is accompanied by an adult, the bill says.
The first violation would be a misdemeanor with a $100 fine and up to a month in the county jail. The bill could go to the Senate floor later this week.