JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi senators voted Thursday to increase the weekly unemployment pay for the first time since 2002.

But even with the two-year increase, the jobless in this state would still collect the some of the smallest compensation checks in the nation.

Mississippi’s current rate of $210 is the lowest weekly maximum benefit in the nation. The bill approved by the Senate would bump that up by $15 this July 1 and another $10 a year later. At $235, the Mississippi benefit would reach the current level for the state with the nation’s second-lowest payments — neighboring Alabama.

‘‘Is that the best we can do?’’ asked Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

The plan still has to be approved by the House. And that means representatives will have to return to the Capitol to continue their part in a special session, possibly in the midst of the Memorial Day weekend.

The House voted to adjourn Wednesday only four hours after the session started. Senators stayed at the Capitol to work on other items requested by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

On Thursday, senators approved one bill to require voter identification and another bill to regulate sales of copper and other scrap metal.

The House and Senate have approved different plans to keep the Mississippi Department of Employment Security alive beyond June 30. They’ll eventually have to agree on the same plan.

MDES handles job placement and training programs and distributes unemployment benefits. The agency came up for a routine review this year, but a dispute over state advertising contracts killed a bill during the regular legislative session to keep MDES alive beyond June 30.

Barbour says keeping the agency in business is the most important work of the special session. He controls the session’s agenda, and he added the unemployment benefit increase on Thursday.

The voter ID bill generated two hours of Senate debate before it passed 30-17, but the proposal is likely to die in the House Elections Committee.

The bill says people would have to present a driver’s license, Social Security card, student ID or other document before voting. The bill says a person with none of the required documents could get a free voter identification card from the secretary of state’s office. It also would set stiff penalties for using the ID requirement to intimidate people.

Voter identification bills have been debated in Mississippi for more than a dozen years, and have died amid arguments that ID could be used to intimidate older black voters who were once subjected to Jim Crow laws.

Opponents said voter ID is not an emergency, and they questioned Barbour’s motive for putting it on the agenda of a special session. If the bill were to become law, it would need approval of the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees Mississippi election procedures to ensure fairness to minorities.

Some senators said the Bush administration Justice Department might approve a Mississippi ID law shortly before the Nov. 4 general election, and in that case people without other documents — mostly likely, older low-income people and minorities who are more likely to vote for Democrats — might not have time to get a voter identification card from the secretary of state’s office.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said the voter ID proposal is an attempt to put a ‘‘stumbling block’’ in front of Democratic candidates.

‘‘It’s not going to work. We’re going to sweep this state,’’ Jordan said. ‘‘We know that the trick is, and we know who you are that’s trying to pull it.’’

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said ID would ensure the integrity of elections.

‘‘The courts have ruled that is OK, it is not a violation of anybody’s constitutional rights,’’ Burton said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month upholding Indiana’s voter ID law.


The bills are Senate Bills 2011, 2004, 2006 and 2001 and House Bill 1.

AP-CS-05-22-08 1905EDT

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