Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, announces his resignation during the first day of the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Tuesday, January 8, 2019.

On the first day of the 2019 legislative session, the Mississippi Senate’s second-in-line stood before his colleagues and apologized.

Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Burton, R-Newton, facing his third charge of driving under the influence, said he was sorry, “If my inability to behave the way a person should behave” cast a negative light on them and announced he would resign his post as Senate second in command.

In a brief speech to his Senate colleagues, Burton announced his plan to finish this year representing District 31 in east Mississippi but would not seek re-election. He said he would resign as Senate president pro tempore effective midnight Tuesday.

“You elected me to that position to be a leader, to do the right thing, to serve with dignity and honor,” Burton said to his Senate colleagues. “This Senate is bigger than any one individual. It is bigger than any successes or failures of one individual.”

The Senate could elect a fellow member as early as Wednesday morning to serve as pro tem, a post outlined in the state constitution.

The pro tem oversees the management of the Senate, presides in the absence of the lieutenant governor and is third in line of gubernatorial succession.

The 2019 session started Tuesday with the specter of both Burton and Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, facing driving under the influence issues.

On Nov. 19, Snowden pleaded no contest in Meridian Municipal Court to refusing a breathalyzer when officers suspected him of driving under the influence.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, confirmed in December he had referred the issue to the House Ethics Committee. On Tuesday, neither Gunn nor Snowden addressed the controversy.

When asked if the committee plans to take up an investigation into whether Snowden should step down, Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc, and committee member Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, said they could not comment on discussions or potential decisions of the committee.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, adjourns the first day of the 2019 legislative session in Jackson Tuesday, January 8, 2019.

“It’s not ripe yet,” Huddleston said of the issue.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had asked Burton to step down as pro tem after his arrest in Starkville last month on DUI charges.

Burton, 62, who has been in the Senate since 1992 representing portions of Lauderdale, Scott and Newton counties, was found not guilty in Newton County justice court for a 2016 DUI arrest. Burton argued that a false positive resulted from him taking cough syrup and breath spray for a scratchy throat. Previously, he pleaded guilty to a 2014 DUI charge.

Burton told his Senate colleagues Tuesday he was seeking professional help. During his speech, the sounds of a school choir gathered in the rotunda filtered into the Senate chamber.

Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, speaks to the Senate concerning Senate Bill No. 2001 in a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Monday, August 27, 2018.

“I have a lot of love, admiration and appreciation for Sen. Burton,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland. “I think because of the negative light that could be placed on this chamber (by the DUI arrest) I think he did what was best.”

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, echoed similar comments.

“My respect for him only grows,” Fillingane said. “I think he handled the situation with dignity and grace.”

The names of several possible replacements have started to swirl, but no clear favorite has emerged. Some possible Burton replacements include: Dean Kirby, R-Pearl; Gray Tollison, R-Oxford; Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, and Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian.

Before either body was in session, Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando held a press conference at Republican Party headquarters in Jackson where he unveiled an 82-county farm tour as part of his recently announced gubernatorial bid. At the event, he outlined some of his campaign platform issues, which include expanding vocational and technical training to students and reconfiguring the way infrastructure is funded in the state.

He also stated he would push for health care reform as one of his biggest priorities, including implementing a Medicaid waivers similar to Indiana’s program to reach the current 200,000 to 300,000 Mississippians who lack health insurance.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s office has held meetings about a similar proposal, Mississippi Today reported recently.

“I do not personally support traditional expansion of Medicaid like they’ve done in some other states, but what I do support and what we do have to take into serious consideration is looking at waivers in an innovative way of bringing health care affordable to the working class Mississippians that are left out right now.”

Also Tuesday, Mike Tagert, the state transportation commissioner for Northern District announced that he would need seek reelection this year after serving two terms on the commission.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.

Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.