Senator Bennie Turner kicked off the West Point/Clay County Growth Alliance’s Issues and Eggs series of legislative breakfasts January 23. Turner discussed a wide range of issues, including the furor over former Governor Haley Barbour’s recent pardons, the budget situation and charter schools, and fielded questions.
Turner is a graduate of the University of Mississippi law school. He was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1992. He currently chairs the Senate Ethics Committee and is the vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee A. He serves on Judiciary B, Appropriations, and Economic Development committees, among others.
“I think this is the first time I have served when all of the elected leaders were new to their position,” he said. “We have a new governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house all at the same time. That’s quite an adjustment.
“A lot of media attention has been devoted to the pardons that Governor Barbour issued at the end of his term,” Turner said. “You may not agree with his exercise. I think that there were 10 or 12 pardons out of 203 or 204 that were clemencies where you reduce the time someone has to serve. In my recollection the only time pardons have really been an issue is when money or illegality has been involved. There has been no hint of that in this situation. The only issue has been the failure to strictly comply with the provision in the constitution that requires 30 days publication by the inmate in the county where the conviction or offense took place before the pardon is granted. There are all sorts of accusations being made as to why that wasn’t strictly complied with. The latest is that the inmates were advised by a deputy attorney general that works with the parole board…the allegation is that this individual said he would personally take care of the publications.
“Part of the conversation is rather or not the pardon provision is outdated and whether the constitution needs to be changed,” Turner said. “I chaired the constitution committee the last four years, and I’m a member now. To give you an idea how I feel about the constitution, during the four years that I chaired the committee we did not hold a single meeting. When I was appointed I explained to the lieutenant governor that I thought the constitution was in pretty good shape and I had no intention of making a run on it.
“When Governor Bill Allain was elected he campaigned on reforming the constitution and he formed a commission to study the constitution,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to serve on that commission. There were a few sections of the constitution that needed to be changed, but the overall consensus of the commission was that the constitution did not need to be rewritten and the minor things that needed to be done could be done by amendment.”
Turner said the budget situation was “very tight.”
“I don’t expect there will be any new programs funded,” he said. “I think we’re going to see additional cuts in programs. I think there’s going to be an effort made to make charter schools more accessible in the state. Right now the law basically authorizes charter schools to come in where a school is failing. Charter schools are, for lack of a better term, the privatization of education. I saw something that indicated there are some 5,000 nationally. The data collected on the effectiveness of that effort is not clear cut in any direction. There is no empirical proof that charter schools do any better than public schools. There’s been an effort to increase the availability in Mississippi, and I think that’s probably going to happen this year.
“The effect that that’s going to have is it will take money from the public school budget and put it over with these charter schools to be managed by them,” he said. “As you are aware, the current administration in Washington supports the increase of charter schools. We’re looking every way we can to try to improve our public schools. This is but the latest and most popular method of trying to address that.”
Turner was asked about the possibility of cuts to the Public Employees Retirement System.
“The governor put together a commission to study the stability of PERS,” Turner said. “They made certain recommendations. Our supreme court has held that the public employees retirement system in the state is a benefits system, and is of a contractual nature. That means you can’t alter a contract unless you increase the benefits. That’s not what former Governor Barbour’s commission wanted to do. I think most of the Republicans, particularly in the House, campaigned openly that they would not support any material changes to PERS. I think it is unlikely that you will see any reducation in benefits.”
Turner was asked about the redistricting process.
“All I can tell you is that both sides have set up committees, but they have not met together unless they did it this weekend,” he said. “So far as I know there is no plan that has been generated or agreed up. I think the lieutenant governor has stated that he prefers seeing something that does not require back-to-back elections. That’s an issue that we’re all watching very closely.”
The next Issues and Eggs will be Monday at 7:30 a.m. in the upstairs meeting room at City Hall. Representatives David Gibbs and Tyrone Ellis will be the featured speakers.0