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Frustrated lawmakers ready to bolt?

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
Oct. 23, 2002
With the political ramifications looming large, one key Mississippi lawmaker expressed frustration Tuesday that whatever the Legislature does on the volatile issue of tort reform may not be enough.
State Sen. Willie L. Simmons, D- Cleveland, in Meridian as a consultant to a local grass roots political committee created by District 2 supervisor Jimmie Smith, said the situation is tenuous. And, his comments covered both medical malpractice insurance reforms approved on Oct. 7 and general business liability still being debated.
The special session, which began Sept. 5, has cost taxpayers about $1.07 million, according to a report by The Associated Press. Neither house has come up with a general business liability plan acceptable to the other, although lawmakers returned to the Capitol today for another try.
Simmons said the underlying causes of insurance rate hikes that frightened physicians and Mississippi businesses have not been addressed.
Coloring the political debate is the question of whether House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Baldwyn, will seek re-election next year. Ford's House carried the ball for trial lawyers in the medical malpractice reform debate, but eventually did agree with the Senate on limiting damage awards and other features demanded by the state's medical community.
If Ford opts out of his powerful House role, the political dynamics of that body would change, observers believe, and the changes could carry over into the essence of how the House operates.
Today, The Associated Press reported, lawmakers may consider a general tort reform bill passed Tuesday by the Senate that is almost identical to legislation passed twice previously by that chamber and then killed in the House. The bill has a punitive damages cap of $5 million.
The House has passed legislation with a much higher punitive cap. The House bill would cap punitive damages at 10 percent of a company's net worth.
The Senate bill, like the House bill, caps the amount of damages awarded by juries to people who might have been the victim of fraud or misinformation by a lending institution on a loan of $20,000 or less.
Business liability reforms have been supported by Mississippi businesses, which cite the state's reputation for large jury awards.
Leaders of both sides had huddled Tuesday after the Senate passed 34-10 and for the third time a bill to protect business from lawsuits, AP reported. Senators said they hoped by including language the full House passed to protect banks and small lenders from lawsuits, the other chamber would be more likely to pass it.
For his part, Ford suggested that lawmakers take a break to allow Senate and House committee members to work on the bill, the AP reported.
If we don't have anything to vote on, I would think it would be very appropriate to suggest that we go home, recess the House and Senate and let folks on the committees work. Then, when we get something we can call the membership back in,'' Ford said.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who heads the state Senate, was reportedly noncommittal.