January 9, 2019 10:29:52 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers opened their election-year session Tuesday and a top senator resigned his leadership post amid questions about a second-offense drunken driving charge he faces.
Republican Terry Burton of Newton announced he is stepping down as Senate president pro tempore as of midnight Tuesday. He said he will remain in the 52-member Senate this year to complete the term but will not seek re-election in his eastern Mississippi district.
"During these next few months as we finish out this term, I'm turning it over to God and I'm turning it over to the professionals that I'm working with to deal with my personal issues, demons, human frailties, whatever you want to call them," said Burton, 62.
Lawmakers are in session three months, and one of the biggest issues could be a teacher pay raise proposed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who is limited to two terms as in his final year in the state's top job.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate have also expressed interest in possibility approving state employee pay raises this year, but most decisions about salaries and other budget issues are likely to be made in late March or early April.
Burton, in his speech, apologized to his colleagues and said he didn't want his behavior to put a "cloud" over the Senate.
"If I've disappointed you, I'm truly sorry," said Burton, who took office in January 1992 as a Democrat and became a Republican in December 2002.
Senators will choose one of their colleagues as the new pro tem, the second-highest leadership post behind Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.
Reeves urged Burton to resign as pro tem on Dec. 21, two days after Burton was arrested in Starkville. Burton was charged with second-offense DUI, although it was his third arrest on a drunken-driving charge.
Burton pleaded guilty after a 2014 DUI arrest in Brandon. He was acquitted after a 2016 DUI arrest in Scott County when a judge ruled that cough syrup and breath spray Burton said he used right after an accident must have caused a false positive on a breath test.
The Mississippi House also faces questions about its speaker pro tempore, Republican Greg Snowden of Meridian, who pleaded no contest Nov. 19 to first-offense DUI. He was not convicted but was put into a diversion program for first-time offenders. Snowden's driver's license is suspended for 120 days, but he can drive using an interlock device which measures alcohol on starting a vehicle.
Snowden was arrested in September after refusing to take a DUI test after rear-ending another vehicle at a traffic signal. Snowden claimed at the time he wasn't drunk and hit the car while he was texting and looking on his phone at news about the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings in Washington.
Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn told reporters last month that the House Ethics Committee could look at Snowden's case.
Here are some issues and events for the first several days of the legislative session:
People (and shrimp) to see
The Mississippi Municipal League expects about 600 people for its midwinter conference Tuesday through Thursday. Mayors and others are planning to go to the Capitol on Wednesday.
One of the biggest social events of the session -- the Gulf Coast Legislative Reception, which features a bounty of shrimp -- is Wednesday evening at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson, according to the state Senate social calendar on the legislative website.
The state chamber of commerce, the Mississippi Economic Council, has its Capital Day on Thursday, with hundreds of business people and others.
State of the State
Bryant is scheduled to give his State of the State address at 5 p.m. Jan. 15, outlining his policy priorities. The speech will be in the Mississippi House chamber and carried by Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Candidates have started qualifying for statewide, regional and county offices and legislative seats in Mississippi. All 122 seats in the state House and all 52 in the state Senate are up for election. Candidates' qualifying deadline for all offices is March 1. Party primaries are in August and the general election is in November.
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