Mississippi: Keeping the Lead In
By: Representative Brandon C. Jones
 
On April 3, Governor Haley Barbour vetoed House Bill 1240, the “Children’s Product Safety Act of 2008.” The bill would have required the Attorney General’s office to maintain a list of children’s products deemed “unsafe” and make this list available to the general public at no cost. Violators of the act would have been prosecuted under the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act.
 
In his veto message, Governor Barbour warned that the bill would undermine tort reform because defendants sued under the act would be subject to the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act and would therefore not benefit from the protections provided under current product liability laws. It seems the Governor was particularly concerned with “innocent sellers” as he at one point during his veto statement asks, “Can a local hardware store be sued for selling a product it had no reason to believe was defective?”
 
The Governor’s frightening hypothetical, which assumes that parents do their toy shopping at local hardware stores, and accompanying argument, confuses the issue at the heart of the bill. Millions of contaminated toys entered the United States last year. Mattel alone recalled 1.5 million toys with 110,000 parts per million of lead (twice the amount permitted in house paints 30 years ago). 
 
Another reason our state needs the Children’s Product Safety Act is because the agency charged with protecting our children from poisonous toys at the federal level, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is under funded, inadequately staffed and, frankly, too cozy with the industries it is supposed to regulate.
 
Concern for Mississippi’s children held sway when this bill was initially introduced. Of our state’s 174 legislators, only 4 failed to vote in favor of the act when it was presented on the floors of the House and Senate. Sadly, the Governor and his veto message were sufficient to convince 47 members of the House of Representatives to change their votes when members attempted to override the veto.
 
This episode is instructive for at least two reasons. First, it demonstrates that invoking the words “tort reform” is still a pretty effective way to get just about anything done in Jackson. Second, it shows that many members of the legislature remain unwilling to act independently of the Governor.