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DMR Bill Heads to Committee After House Passes Its Own Version

By Evelina Burnett | Published 13 Mar 2014 07:57pm | comments

A bill to reorganize the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources is expected to head to a conference committee after the House this week passed a different version of the Senate bill. As MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports, the bill aims to increase oversight at the agency rocked by a corruption investigation last year.

House Amended Version of S.B. 2579 (Passed on Mar. 11, 2014)

Senate Version of S.B. 2579 (as passed) (Passed on Feb. 6, 2014)

The House and Senate versions of the bill agree on a few things. Both require an annual audit, reorganize the agency into five offices and add qualifications for some of the heads of those divisions, such as the chief financial officer and the chief of marine patrol.

But there were a number of key differences. One of the most hotly debated: the Senate agreed to give the agency a one-year exemption from state personnel board rules. The House disagreed.

Representative David Baria of Bay St. Louis says he believes every state agency - and in particular this one - should remain under state personnel board rules.

"In light of everything that's gone at the DMR over the last few years, I feel like the legislature and the state personnel board should retain very close oversight," he says. "That's our responsibility as a legislature to remain oversight over all state agencies, and DMR is no different in that respect."

But Senator Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, the original bill’s author, argues the exemption would, first, let the agency quickly hire the people it needs.

"Second, to get them out from under the red tape that is, unfortunately, part of the government bureaucracy, so they can streamline and get turned around as fast as they can," Wiggins says.

The Senate version also abolished the DMR’s artificial reef account and created a legislative oversight committee; the House version doesn't have either measure. Still Wiggins says he believes some version of this bill will pass.

"I've talked to my House colleagues: I think everybody wants a bill for DMR accountability," he says. "So what's the final form - we'll have to see. But, yes, I'm optimistic that there will be a bill."

Seven former DMR employees were indicted last year on various corruption charges. Former DMR director Bill Walker on Monday pleaded guilty to using federal funds to purchase property owned by his son. 

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