Hopson, Monsour see smoother way 2nd year

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 4, 2009

State Sen. Briggs Hopson and state Rep. Alex Monsour, both Republicans entering their second regular session, expect the 2009 session to be smoother than their first year in office.

“At first, you spend a lot of time figuring out rules and processes, learning who the key players are,” said Hopson, 32. “It should be a much smoother transition this year.”

Monsour, 46, called his initial session “a learning experience” in terms of building support for an agenda typical of a first-time representative.

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“You have to get some help on walking a bill through to get things done in a bipartisan way,” Monsour said.

Both men entered elective office in 2007 after winning contested primaries and a low-turnout general election. Of 26 bills authored between the two men, eight were signed into law. They included special funding requests by the City of Vicksburg for local charitable groups and resolutions honoring public servants and youth academic achievement.

On the flip side of experience, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, has represented most city voters in the state House since 1988. His memories of his initial term in office are ones of heady plans brought back to earth by the realities of consensus-building.

“I thought I could turn around the world,” said Flaggs, 55. “Once I got past the shock, I found out it’s a process.”

Flaggs has praise for both Warren County colleagues on their comportment in 2008, calling their topics of choice “careful and selective.”

“I commend them both for the way they came in,” Flaggs said, adding the pair enjoyed a transition made somewhat easier by technology.

“The process has changed since I came in,” Flaggs said. “Before, I’d get a fax or letters from constituents. Now, we have e-mail, cell phones, text messages, the Internet. It’s much more accessible to the public.”

One issue that generated a lot of text messages even as debate continued, Flaggs said, is one of two likely to be prominent as legislators craft a budget expected to be around $5 billion.

Flaggs favors raising the excise tax on cigarettes sold in Mississippi from 18 cents per pack — among the lowest in the nation — to $1. The 82 cent increase would be used to fund the state’s Division of Medicaid and offset tuition at state universities, Flaggs said.

Bills filed the past three years dealing with cigarette tax increases have not come to a committee vote, including one filed by Flaggs last year aimed at Medicaid funding.

Gov. Haley Barbour now favors a cigarette tax hike, after opposing one since taking office, but only to 42 cents per pack for premium brands and 61 cents on lower-priced labels. Revenue from any tax increase on cigarettes should go into the general fund, the Republican governor has said.

Other bills filed by the local delegation will revisit topics from a year ago that failed in committee.

Hopson, an attorney, said he will file bills to raise the salaries of judges and district attorneys in Mississippi. It could be one of several similarly worded bills, as the issue is central to the Mississippi Bar’s lobbying efforts this year.

Currently, circuit and chancery judges are paid $104,170 per year, while district attorneys are paid $95,796.

Mississippi “is woefully behind other states in pay,” Hopson said.

The sophomore senator also will support the Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange Act, which died in committee last year. The bill is favored by the Mississippi Hospital Association and would set up a panel to overhaul employer-provided insurance.

“It ought to be good for providers and recipients and reduce health-care costs,” Hopson said.

Additional re-files by Hopson will deal with requiring a probable cause hearing when a criminal arrest warrant is issued and stiffer penalties for voyeurism, intended to curb taking pictures of people in situations of expected privacy.

Prominent on Monsour’s to-sign list is a bill in the works by the Tourism Committee to provide tax incentives to casino operators to develop non-gaming attractions as a way to augment tourist traffic. Though not on the committee, Monsour said he plans to sign on to similar legislation planned this year by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian.

“We’ve got the boats (in Vicksburg), but we’ve got to get people to bring the rest of the family here,” Monsour said.

A bill to strengthen penalties for drug offenses involving crystal methamphetamine is likely, Monsour said, as is support for a voter ID law. Also, Monsour said he would re-file a bill to require insurers to notify the Department of Public Safety when motor vehicle liability insurance lapses and suspend a driver’s license and registration if proof of insurance is not provided to the state in 30 days.

Committee chairmanships are expected to remain the same for the upcoming session. For Flaggs, it means he will chair the House Banking and Financial Services Committee, as well as hold spots on the Appropriations, Executive Contingent Fund, Fees and Salaries of Public Officers, Gaming, Investigate State Offices, Legislative Budget, Medicaid, Public Health and Human Services committees.

Monsour sits on the House Juvenile Justice, Judiciary B, Ports, Harbors and Airports and Transportation committees.

In the state Senate, Hopson vice-chairs the Judiciary A Committee and sits on the Judiciary B panel. Also, Hopson is on the Appropriations, Environmental Protection, Conservation and Water, Ports and Marine Resources, Public Health and Welfare, Tourism and Universities and Colleges committees.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com.