Legislature 2006: A House United?


Last year, in the days before the new legislative session, lawmakers were ready to walk into the state capitol with their guns out. Mississippi was, and remains, a state where financial ends are never comfortably met, and legislators with a passion to meet federal requirements for education or health-care funding rarely sleep well at night. The state has routinely delivered shortfalls in Mississippi Adequate Education Program requirements, and meeting the one-third match for the federal funding of Medicaid was a battle last year and the year before.

During the last two years, in particular, the rift between the Democratically controlled House and the Republican-dominated Senate created long, exasperated tirades from members such as Lee County Democrat Rep. Steve Holland and countless others, all ranting about the other side stalling the legislative process. Also, unbroken philosophical unity between the Senate and the governor is changing the face of Mississippi politics and emasculating the more liberal-minded House.

Campaign literature supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour warned of a nightmare scenario should Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Barbara Blackmon win a seat alongside Democratic gubernatorial incumbent Ronnie Musgrove. If voters elected the "liberal" Musgrove and Blackmon, they would form a unified front, and liberals would dominate the capitol, the literature warned. They would stick together like dirt clods, plugging any conservative attempt to preserve the Mississippi way of life. They would steal your hard-earned money. They would take away your freedom. By God, they would take away your state flag.

Some of the literature may have had an impact; both Musgrove and Blackmon lost. Nevertheless, the Republican winners have faithfully followed the unifying tactics warned about in the campaign e-mails.

Lieutenant governor is a position that basically carries the Senate in its back pocket. If the lieutenant governor is in line with the political beliefs of the governor, the two have incredible potential to dominate lawmaking. Barbour knew this. So did Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, a former Democrat who has bent over backward to earn her Republican stripes. Together the two have posed a united front against many of the more progressive wishes of the House, stalling tax-increase proposals like a $1 tax on a pack of cigarettes, a new revenue that Mississippians—of both parties—overwhelmingly supported in surveys in 2005 to help pay for health-care and education needs. Barbour's campaign literature's unforgivable political transgression seems to be OK so long as Barbour and Tuck are the transgressors.

As a result, the perceived impotence of the House has been steadily fueling resentment. "Politics have never been this partisan," said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. "Barbour has come down from Washington and brought with him the partisan politics that allowed Republicans to dominate (in Washington). This can't work in Mississippi. We were never meant to be this factious. State politics is too small."

Nevertheless, the system has worked, at least for one side of the capitol. During the fiery debates of last year, House Democrats banged their heads fruitlessly against the wall on Barbour's demands to cut expenses, putting the state's health care and education programs to the sword, and with few concessions from the Senate or the governor in return.

"We've cut and cut," McCoy ranted last year. "We've sliced everything to the bone. We did as they asked. We've put our senior citizens and our youth at risk. We were hoping that they (the Senate-governor bloc) would at least meet us halfway on something. Anything. We need some form of new funding, and Mississippians want that tobacco tax."

But Barbour didn't need to go halfway. If the Senate didn't get the kind of bills out of the House it wanted to see, Senate controllers knew all they had to do was stall the process and wait for the inevitable special sessions that the governor is willing to call over and over again until he gets his way, all the while blaming the House for the expensive price tags of the sessions, a notion pushed by much of the media. Barbour, as governor, gets to set the agenda on special sessions. It's the best way Barbour saw of taking a largely powerless governor position and giving it some muscle.

"My hat's off to Barbour for his idea on special-session governing," says Stennis Institute Director Marty Wiseman. "Barbour knows how to get the most out of anything. The governor's position doesn't come with much power, but Barbour found a way to empower it. He knows how to do things."

Barbour's tactic allowed lawmakers to make history last year by ending the regular session in early April without agreeing on a budget. April 6 is not such an imposing deadline, however, if all you have to do is extend it. The state endured a total of five special sessions after the last legislative session, each running a total of $35,000 a day. It was only through a special session that Legislators approved a nearly $4 billion budget.

The budget didn't come easy, though. Cuts made in the budget were insufficient, and there was no way former tobacco lobbyist Haley Barbour was going to agree to a tax increase on tobacco, despite the current tobacco tax being only 18 cents—the third lowest in the nation and the absolute lowest for a state that doesn't even grow tobacco.

But then came a windfall in one-time money, thanks to a company that had honored Mississippi as the home state of the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. With $107 billion in assets, WorldCom's bankruptcy in 2002 dwarfed that of even Enron Corp.

Three years later, Attorney General Jim Hood announced on May 9, 2005, that $100 million would be wrenched from WorldCom's lawyers, to go straight into the state's general fund. Barbour, never a fan of lawsuits and a constant champion of capping them, found his budget saved by the results of a diligent lawyer following in the footsteps of former AG Mike Moore—a man who made no new friends with Barbour after smacking the lobbyist's tobacco buddies with the first successful state lawsuit against a tobacco company for health-care costs. The $100 million was the result of a $1 billion lawsuit against the defunct company, now called MCI.

"My hope is that this'll counter some of our problems with the budget," Hood said immediately after the announcement, and then popped a chuckle. "And to think they'd wanted to ask for less," he added, referring to the tax commission's original asking price of $3 million.

The request of Hood's office for such an audacious figure resulted in Mississippi landing a much bigger payback than other states suing for similar infringements, according to AG Special Assistant Jacob Ray.

Four more special sessions were to follow the May session that brought the state its budget. The end of August brought something entirely different, though.

"It's gone," said Janice Jones, who stood weeping two weeks later outside a Red Cross help center in a line of hundreds of destitute-looking hurricane victims. "We lost everything down in Gulfport. It all got washed away. Every bit of it. It's all gone. I can't even get back down there. And I hear there's no reason to go because there ain't nothing to go back to. What will we do with our babies?"

Hurricane Katrina roared through the state like a meteorological holocaust, bringing incalculable billions of dollars worth of damage. The Biloxi Sun-Herald reported that losses hit a possible $125 billion, more than any natural disaster in U.S. history. The storm turned the state on its head, triggering panic, fury and frantic head-scratching in the state capitol.

In September, Barbour began calling lawmakers back to the capitol for a special session to aid the anxious riverboat casino industry and sort out the financial mess the storm left behind. Some gambling foes fought the idea of moving the coastal casino barges onto dry land, where some casino owners insist foundations will be more stable. During the storm, some of the floating gambling houses floated to the other side of the highway, riding a 25-foot swell as it dumped them into the hotels on the other side of the road.

There had been some disagreement among lawmakers who saw the casino industry as a vice industry fueling poverty and countless bankruptcy filings among many gambling addicts, as well as a moral drain upon the "moral majority" who believe they rule Mississippi politics.
The "moral majority" saw itself getting hustled quickly out of the capitol, however, when the vote came down. Both Democrats and Republicans know a financial disaster when they see it, and even conservatives who were elected on a ticket supporting morals and family obligations knew the casino industry was pouring more than $5 billion into the state budget through taxes every year.

The Senate voted 29-21 in October 2005 for a House plan to allow the Katrina-destroyed Coast casino industry to rebuild on dry land. Barbour signed the bill as soon as it landed on his desk.

This year much of the partisan rivalry and bitterness seems to be taking a back seat to an in-the-trenches mindset. Many lawmakers of both parties say they're walking into a regular session with a desperate need to work with political enemies to get the state's budget set.

"The whole session's gonna be Katrina dominated. No doubt about that," said John Mayo, D-Clarksdale. "It's going to be a matter of seeing what the state's responsibility is going to be for repairing infrastructure on the Coast and trying to help businesses be made whole again."

The bickering over how the money will be spent is offset, however, by Congress handing over staggering amounts of money for statewide rebuilding efforts in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Congress recently approved the passage of $11.5 billion in community development block grants between the two states, as well as $4.4 billion for Defense Department expenses, $2.9 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, another $2.8 billion to repair roads bridges and other forms of infrastructure, $1.6 billion for education, including $645 million for schools that took in displaced students. It also approved $750 million for schools affected by hurricanes and $200 million for colleges similarly damaged. The package also addresses the enormous loss by farmers, approving $400 million for farmers and foresters in Katrina-savaged territory.

"With the federal government putting in so many billions, and the state not having to make a Medicaid match this year, although we lost the Gulf Coast, the economy is doing better than we anticipated," Mayo said. "If the economy holds in January and February, we're not going to be as bad off as we might have been as—I hate to say it—as bad as we would have been without the hurricane."

Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said if there is any battle, it will most likely be over how the state appropriates the money it's given.

"Right now we're trying to figure out who has the authority to spend the money under federal law,"Chaney said. "Grant money or placement money becomes the executive power of the governor. And the governor is not looking to be the one to appropriate the money. He's probably going to hand the ball off to MDA and let (Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director) Leland Speed do it. All Leland is going to do is ask the Legislature what they want to do."

Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, pointed out that any decision from MDA, despite its blessing from the governor, was not a rubber stamp of approval from the Legislature.

"Speed does a good job. He's very knowledgeable, but the Legislature gets to have a pretty big stick. While MDA is under the governor's control, legislatively you can change the law," Moak said. "MDA is controlled by the Constitution and legislation. I don't think we'll have a problem. We decide how far the governor can go with this particular agency. I don't think anybody's going to get too far in the field on this," Moak said.

Chaney said he was fully behind the MDA's decisions. "People tend to say I don't trust the MDA only when MDA doesn't give the money to a project they want them to give it to. Like Project Wellspring. If MDA says 'no, I ain't giving them the money,' then some legislators might say 'we don't trust them.' It's nothing unexpected."

Big buzz floating around the capitol suggests that Project Wellspring could possibly be a dividing issue.

"The very first issue that's probably going to be contentious is the funding of this Wellspring Project up in Northeast Mississippi," Mayo said. "Essentially it's the state building an industrial park, which we don't do. We'll have to wait and see where that goes."

This year also involves the possibility of a state employee pay raise, something that hasn't happened during many legislative regular sessions. It's also a stark contrast to proposals by the governor to slash health-care coverage for state workers as recently as the last regular session.

"We want to give state employees a 2-percent pay raise minimum," Chaney said. "We want to properly fund education and we want to take care of our institutions of higher learning. Heck, the governor said he was for a pay raise in his state budget. I think this is something that stands a good chance of happening."

A major facilitator in the legislative process this year, making pay raises a possibility, is the state's new situation regarding Medicaid. Congress recently approved a deficit reduction package that would provide an additional $700 million in Medicaid funds for Mississippi. Normally, Mississippi pays 22 percent of its Medicaid costs and the federal government pays 78 percent. The state's inability to easily match the 22 percent requirement became a war issue during the last regular session.
This time, though, the new $700 million in federal Medicaid funds would pay 100 percent of the state's Medicaid allotment, with no state match required until those funds are depleted.

Legislators expect the money saved will be going to other things, such as health care, business investment or education.

Joining in the possible good news is the potential for a second windfall in state revenue, thanks to the monumental reconstruction effort underway on the Coast.

Revenue estimates from the state tax commission and the treasurer are telling legislators to look forward to the coming months with a sense of optimism.

"I'm hearing good things. January and February should be good," says Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson. "There may be some tail-off in January, but February is when the Christmas stuff is added in, and then March is key because it all balances out. Usually what we've done is approve a budget before the February estimate, and we make adjustments for the March deal as the negotiations take place on the budget. But March is going to be the month to look out for, to see if the revenue estimates justify us pushing for a $4 million budget in general fund revenue in 2005."

The possibility of a bigger budget is allowing some legislators, who have been cradling newborn bill proposals for months, to regard their creations with a little more optimism.

"Well, budget forecasters say we're going to have more money to spend this year than last year because of large spending in hurricane recovery, so I'm hoping that some of that can go to improvement in the state's capital city," said Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson.

"I'm sponsoring a bill requesting $5 million in state funding for the city to demolish dilapidated buildings faster, and I'm hoping it's got a chance, thanks to the new revenue. You've got construction workers paying income taxes and people buying huge amounts of building materials and things like that. I know it seems counter-intuitive but, in fact, a natural disaster can have positive impact on budgets because of the spending that occurs after it."

Moak says that new money will be welcomed but added that legislators needed to be careful with how it was spent.

"I think it's OK to believe we're going into a positive year, but we need to set priorities and spend our money where we believe it needs to be spent," Moak said. "Real questions will arise as to whether we have a responsibility to take care of our education budget, mental health patients and those sorts of things, but, look, we didn't take care of those issues back when we had money flowing in here like crazy. We didn't fundamentally help the needs of our own citizens then. I don't have a lot of faith that we're going to step up to the plate and do this now, even though we should. Legislators are always cognizant of the fact that a lot of money is one-time money, but we still spend it like it's not."

Previous Comments


Just a correction: my quote should have said $4 billion instead of $4 million, don't know if it was my fault, but that is the right amount.

Rep. Erik Fleming

Thanks, Rep. Fleming. We'll run a correction next week in the print edition, too. We'll also check our millions vs. our billions closer in the future.



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