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Tuck hopes for solution to tort reform

By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
May 26, 2002
Mississippi's second-highest elected official believes a joint House and Senate committee studying civil justice reform will offer possible solutions in time for a special session later this year.
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who presides over the 52-member state Senate, discussed civil justice reform more commonly called tort reform and other issues in a meeting with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: How are you approaching the issue of tort reform?
Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck: As you know we've got 13 members from the House and 13 members from the Senate that the Speaker and I appointed to serve on the committee to study civil justice reform. And when you talk about tort reform, that's all encompassing. This committee is … talking about the entire civil justice system, which is what needs to occur in my opinion.
The Meridian Star: The committee seems a little heavy with lawyers.
Tuck: Some of the attorneys, though, who are on the committee it's quite obvious that they are conservative in nature. Just because it's their occupation, I don't think it means that you can judge how they are going to go on that particular issue one way or the other.
One thing we need to do is to have everyone business leaders, trial lawyers, the medical community all saying here's exactly what we need and here's why. I strongly believe the members that I've appointed from the Senate, and I speak just for those because they are the ones I appointed, that they will be fair, they will be objective.
The Star: What is your personal view on caps on punitive damage awards?
Tuck: This year in the session we did have several pieces of tort reform that were introduced some on this committee co-authored those. But I think that what we need to do now is let this committee come with some recommendations. As far as specifics, it would be a little premature. I don't want to interfere with the committee process. I would like to get some input from them and let them have their hearings and from there kind of set some goals that we would like to achieve.
The Star: Does the committee have a specific charge and deadline?
Tuck: They are going to start meeting in June. At the end of June, after a month of hearings, they are going to report, give us an update and tell us exactly what they've been able to come up with. And from there decide how many more hearings they think they might need. Their charge is simply this: Everything is on the table when it comes to the civil justice system. And then from there to make recommendations.
The Star: What was your reaction when you heard the U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticize the state over tort reform?
Tuck: Well, certainly, I don't like it when people come in and are negative about our state. There again, there is a perception. If that is a perception that other people see based on that action, then we've got to look at this issue. And I think in many people's eyes perception can be reality.
The Star: What's your plan to save Medicaid?
Tuck: Right now, a (special legislative) committee is taking one issue at a time and trying to work on some ways of working to curtail some of these costs. Medicaid was a challenging issue for us to deal with and of course it became a passion of mine when there was a lot of talk about kicking people out of nursing homes. I thought that was a campaign of fear because we were not going to let anyone be thrown out of nursing homes.
The Star: Can you elaborate on the "campaign of fear?" Was it a political gimmick by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to persuade the Legislature to take specific action?
Tuck: He can answer that. But I can tell you this: The Legislature was never going to let anyone be thrown out of a nursing home. It's unforgivable in my opinion to scare our elderly.
I traveled across the state. It was amazing when I would go into nursing homes. One administrator shared a story with me and it will break your heart when an administrator tells you that she goes in and an elderly man has his suitcase packed. She said, "Where are you going?" He said, "I don't know. I know I'm fixing to get kicked out of here."
The Star: Should the legislative Medicaid committee work with a separate one appointed by Musgrove?
Tuck: I don't know what that committee is going to do. We haven't been privy to any of that. What we know is what we've read about that committee. I know this committee that we have proposed … has had some good meetings. We are doing what we said we would do in our group and that is let's work on this issue. We realize we've got to get it under control.
The Star: State universities will raise tuition 8 percent this fall. Besides that, legislative support for the state's Institutions of Higher Learning has decreased. How can you say that the Legislature is committed to higher education?
Tuck: When you make a decision that we are living within our means, you set the priorities. That's what we did. We tried to fund those in the best possible means that we could.
No one anticipated that we would have a downturn in the economy like we have. No one knew what impact 9/11 would have on our state. And no one knew about the exodus of jobs because of NAFTA, how that would impact our state. But it has had an impact.
We tried to do, I guess, the best that we could under the circumstances that we have been faced with. We have worked very closely with leaders in the Institutions of Higher Learning and in the junior and community colleges.
Certainly you are not able to do everything you want to do when you have financial situations like we've been faced with.
The Star: What is in Amy Tuck's political future?
Tuck: Running for re-election as lieutenant governor. The people, I appreciate the trust they have placed in me to serve in this role. I'm running as a Democrat.
The Star: What was your reaction to state Sen. Videt Carmichael's switch from Democrat to Republican? Will that make a difference in the Senate?
Tuck: I think you can look at my committee assignments and see that I'm extremely fair. First of all, as you know, I get their input as to what committees they are interested in and what areas they would like to serve in. We try to put people in positions that they can do the very best job. We all have to work together. And I think the people across the state, that's what they expect and that's what they deserve.
The Star: Give us an assessment of your working relationship with Gov. Musgrove.
Tuck: I have little communication with the governor. There's not a lot of communication there. Nonetheless, I do have a good working relationship with members of the Legislature and the Speaker. And we still have a lot of challenges ahead that we are working on. And I feel like I'll certainly put forth effort to work with anybody. That's what we are elected to do.