Bill seeks US citizenship proof for state benefits

JACKSON, MS (AP) - People who apply for food stamps or other public assistance in Mississippi would have to sign a sworn statement that they're U.S. citizens or that they're foreigners in the country legally, under a bill that cleared the state Senate.

The bill passed Monday after little debate and it moves now to the House for more work. The chief sponsor of the bill, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said the only people exempt from the requirements would be children younger than 14.

Action on the bill came as legislators began the third week of their three-month session.

Legislative leaders said even with busy schedules at the state Capitol, officials will take time Tuesday to acknowledge the historic events taking place hundreds of miles away in Washington, where Democrat Barack Obama takes the oath of office to become the nation's first black president.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said he'll attend the inauguration, and some Mississippi lawmakers have flown to the nation's capital at their own expense. Many other legislators say the plan to watch the day's events on television.

"I can't wait," said Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, who campaigned for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 and switched when Obama won the Democratic nomination.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said he'll be respectful of the Democrats' wishes. Bryant said while the state Senate will be in session Tuesday, there probably won't be a heavy work load. He said he won't allow debate that day on any issues that traditionally are divided along party lines - including a bill that would require voters to show identification at the polls.

"We wouldn't want, if it were the other way around and we were out at a Republican inaugural. We would be sensitive to what issues would be brought to the floor," Bryant said. "We've got plenty of time. It's early in the session. There won't be any surprises. We won't try to bring anything to the floor that would be harmful to one side or the other."

A voter ID bill passed the Senate last week but has been held for the possibility of more debate. Many Republicans would like to remove a provision that would exempt people born before 1946 from having to show a driver's license or other ID at the polls.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, persuaded a majority of his colleagues to include the age exemption as an acknowledgment of opponents' biggest argument against voter ID - that such a rule could be used to intimidate older black people who used to encounter violence when they tried to assert their constitutional right to vote.

Senators on Monday declined a second round of debate on a bill they passed last Friday, to provide $13 million in incentives to help Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. expand its operation in Tupelo. The bill would allow the state to spend $7 million for a building for the company. The bill also would authorize a $6 million interest-free loan, to be repaid over 10 years.

The Ohio-based company announced in December it is closing its plant in Albany, Ga., and keeping open its plants in Findlay, Ohio; Texarkana, Ark.; and Tupelo, Miss.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said while the company has not yet announced how much equipment or how many jobs it might move to Tupelo, officials in northeast Mississippi hope the expansion there will be large. Some senators asked Friday whether the incentives amount to a bailout for Cooper Tire. Nunnelee said it is not.

"Cooper Tire is a viable company with or without north Mississippi," Nunnelee said. "The question is, what's north Mississippi going to look like with or without Cooper Tire?"

The cigarette bill that passed the House last week would set the excise tax at $1 a pack, up from the current 18 cents a pack. The bill moves to the Senate for more debate.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has said he supports a smaller cigarette tax increase, and the GOP-controlled Senate might incorporate some of his ideas into the bill.

Many lawmakers would like to complete work on a cigarette bill soon, with hopes that a higher tax could take effect March 1 to generate millions of dollars for the struggling state budget before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

The bills are Senate Bills 2133, 2605 and 2548 and House Bills 364 and 430.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)