Burton, Snowden DUI saga: One top leader resigns post as another’s future is snarled in uncertainty

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today, Report For America

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.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today, Report For America

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.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

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.