State Legislature begins; House, senate leaders face DUI scrutiny

Published 1:53 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2019

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. Burton, 62, has served in the Senate since 1992.

“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,” Burton said.

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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,” Burton said.

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.