State Representatives

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2012

Nolan Mettetal

Joe C. Gardner

Local reps split votes on thorny issues in House

By Billy Davis

Panola County’s two state representatives in the Mississippi House split their votes on controversial issues in recent weeks, including votes on illegal immigration, charter schools and anti-abortion bills.

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State Rep. Nolan Mettetal voted in favor of a crackdown on illegal immigration, the charter school bill, and the so-called “heartbeat bill,” which would have prohibited an abortion if a heartbeat is detected.
Mettetal, a Republican, is serving his first term in the House of Representatives after giving up his District 10 seat in the state senate.

Panola County is also represented in the House by Rep. Joe Gardner, a Democrat, who has served since 2007.

Gardner has cast “nay” votes on the hot-button issues — a crackdown on illegal immigrants, charter schools, and the “heartbeat” bill.

Illegal immigration bill

House Bill 488 passed 70-48 with strong Republican support but died in the Senate, in a committee chaired by a Democrat.

Illegal immigration is not an issue confined to Mississippi, of course, and the state legislature’s actions were picked up April 3 in a story in the Los Angeles Times.

The defeat of House Bill 488 “bucked a trend” in the Deep South after other Southern states have passed more stringent law enforcement laws, the newspaper reported.

Immigrant rights leader Bill Chandler said this week Mississippi may have as many as 200,000 people who are in the state “without authorization,” though many of them had legal documents that have expired.

Chandler chided a Panolian reporter for using the term “illegal immigrant,” likening the term to a bigoted term for blacks.  

“That is an offensive, racist term,” Chandler hollered over the phone. “You should get that out of your head.”

Chandler, a longtime union organizer from California, helped start the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) currently based in Jackson.

MIRA was a leading opponent of House Bill 488, which was also opposed by law enforcement officials, Mississippi Farm Bureau, and farming industries that use immigrant workers.

Asked if he believed illegal immigrants are exploited on farms, Chandler said many of them are protected by union membership, especially in the poultry industry.

Rep. Mettetal said illegal immigration is a federal issue that is best left to the federal government, though he went on to defend the bill passed in the House.  

State legislatures have created “fragmented laws” that vary from state to state, Mettetal said, “but since the federal government is not doing anything, the states have to do something to address it.”

Arizona officials have complained about runaway illegal migration in that border state, and a law passed in 2010 by the state legislature is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mettetal also said the term “illegal immigrant” is sprinkled throughout federal laws addressing the topic.
Anti-abortion bills

Two anti-abortion bills have passed in the state legislature this session while one has died, abortion foes have reported.

The heartbeat bill, House Bill 1196, died in the same Senate committee where the immigration bill met its fate.

A second abortion-related bill regulating abortion drug RU-486 was also killed by Sen. Hob Bryan, who chairs a judiciary committee.

Bryan, of Amory, questioned if the two bills would be upheld if challenged in court.

A third anti-abortion bill has passed the House and Senate and will be signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Abortion opponents in the legislature believe House Bill 1390 could end legal abortion in the state by requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and be certified in obstetrics and gynecology.  

Mississippi has one abortion clinic, located in Jackson, and supporters of the bill said this week they believe the new rules will force the clinic to close.

“As governor I will continue to work to make Mississippi abortion-free,” Bryant said after the bill’s passage.

Asked about the heartbeat bill, Rep. Mettetal said, “If it has a heartbeat, then it’s alive.”

Charter schools

Mettetal said the charter school bill, which died in a House committee, was an attempt by legislators to help children in poor-performing school districts.

The legislation would have allowed the Department of Education to expand charter schools in the state.  

“It’s an opportunity for students who are repeatedly sent to a failing district to have an opportunity to succeed by getting an adequate education,” said Mettetal.

The charter school bill died in a 15-16 vote in the Housee Education Committee this week.

Republican lawmakers from DeSoto County, where there are successful public schools, helped defeat the legislation, The Clarion-Ledger reported.

Gov. Bryant has said he may hold a special session for lawmakers to reconsider the charter school legislation.