Local Legislators

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 16, 2009

State legislator Joe Gardner (left) is pictured with House Speaker Billy McCoy after Gardner led the House in the Pledge of Allegiance and delivered the opening prayer on January 12. Photo provided

Legislators attach names to controversial bills

By Billy Davis

State Rep. Joe Gardner is participating in legislation in the House that is stirring debate over the need for a racial profiling ban in the state.

The House legislation, if it becomes law, would ban the controversial practice that has been criticized by some civil rights organizations. The main target of a state law is law enforcement officers who make vehicle stops based on the race of the driver and passengers.

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Gardner said this week that the issue is being debated in a House committee, Judiciary B, on which he sits. He authored a racial profiling bill last year that died in the Judiciary B committee.

State Sen. Johnnie Walls Jr., of Greenville, was set to introduce similar legislation in the state Senate.

A House panel on Tuesday heard from 10 witnesses that included purported victims of racial profiling, and two Mississippi police chiefs who said the practice remains a problem in the state, The Clarion-Ledger reported.

Mississippi is one of about 25 states with no law on racial profiling, according to the Jackson newspaper.

The Clarion-Ledger story included comments from a Mississippi sheriff who said the practice has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, making a state law unnecessary.

“It’s already against the law,” said Madison County Sheriff Toby Trowbridge.

Gardner has also added his name as co-author of a House bill that would ban cell phone use while driving. Ten other House members are also named as co-authors of House Bill 431. 

Gardner said he added his name after seeing automobile accident statistics that show a sharp increase due to cell phone use.

The Batesville legislator said he uses a Blue Tooth device, the earpiece that allows hands-free use, which would remain legal under the state bill. The state law would also ban texting while driving.

A second Panola County legislator, Warner McBride, has added his name to a House bill that would allow early voting 15 days before a state, federal or county election. The bill also addresses the thorny issue of voter ID.

McBride and 10 other House members are named as co-authors of House Bill 430, known as the “Comprehensive Election Reform Act of 2009.”

A House committee was set to vote on the bill Thursday, McBride said.

The Mississippi legislature has wrangled over the issue of voter ID for years, with Democrats in the House hesitant to support a photo ID while Republicans in the Senate have continually pushed for it. The result has been dead bills and no election reforms.

Every state that touches Mississippi requires some form of voter ID at the polls, but Mississippians are required only to give their name in order to cast a vote.

Aware of the looming issue, McBride recalled observing voters at a voting precinct in Batesville as they gave their name and voted.

“Once they signed their name, you had to go on their word,” he said. “They could have been anybody.”

Because the issue has failed to find common ground, McBride said he and other legislators are urging passage of a compromise bill that would appease all sides. Adding the early voting provision helped garner support from members of the Black Caucus, a vocal opponent of voter ID.

But the current legislation is being criticized for “water-downed” reforms, namely a lengthy list of allowances for voter ID that do not include a photo.

The House bill would allow Mississippi voters to bring various forms of ID “with no requirement for a photo ID,” Brad White, chair of Mississippi’s Republican Party, told the Associated Press. 

The ID allowances in the House bill include a Mississippi voter card, valid driver’s license, state employee ID card, passport, student ID, concealed carry ID, pilot’s license issued by the FAA, a Medicaid or Medicare card, a Mississippi hunting or fishing license, military ID, court order of adoption, a court record of name change, a debit or credit card, a buyer’s club ID, an official voter registration card, or a utility bill, bank statement or government check that is dated 60 days before election day.

A state Senate Committee this week passed an election reform bill that would allow the use of several forms of ID, such as driver’s license, passport and military ID, all of which include a photo.

McBride said he would support a photo ID bill but also said he can “suffice” with the House version, too.

“It’s just important that we have some type of identification,” he said.

In other legislative news, McBride and Gardner were among House members who voted overwhelmingly to approve an 82-cents-a-pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax this week.

The current state tax on cigarettes is 18 cents a pack, one of the lowest in the nation, hence the new tax would mean a $1 a pack state tax on a pack. The House bill now goes to the state Senate.

Panola County’s representatives in the House are McBride, Gardner, and Clara Burnett.

Sen. Nolan Mettetal represents Panola County in the state Senate.

To reach your legislator at the state capital, call 601-359-3770.