Monday, January 11, 2016
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Ambitious new lawmakers who want to zip into the Mississippi Capitol and rapidly change public policy are getting their first tough lesson: Nothing happens quickly at the beginning of a term.
The 2016 session started last week at a pace so leisurely that it's not even accurate to describe what's happening, so far, as "work" for most legislators.
House and Senate staffers have been busy. The start of a four-year term requires them to handle plenty of organizational matters, including helping legislators choose desks in each chamber and parking spaces on the Capitol grounds.
Staff attorneys are writing bills that legislators are requesting, but until committees are established, there's no place for those bills to go for the first round of debate.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves will announce committee members and chairmen in the Senate, and Speaker Philip Gunn will announce them in the House.
These announcements are crucial because committees, and their chairmen, have the power to decide which bills will survive long enough for to be considered in each chamber. Committees are usually — but not always — the killing grounds for proposals that are goofy, hyperpartisan or wildly expensive.
Committee assignments are on hold, in part, because legislators are still working to resolve disputes about one House race and one Senate race from the November election.
Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton of Taylorsville was sworn in for a sixth term last week, but Mark Tullos of Raleigh, the Republican who ran against him, is asking the House to overturn the election. The District 79 race in Smith and Jasper counties ended in a tie, and Eaton won a drawing of straws as a tiebreaker. Tullos contends the race never should have been tied because he believes some votes were improperly counted.
In Senate District 37 in Adams, Amite, Franklin and Pike counties, Democratic former Sen. Bob Dearing defeated Republican Sen. Melanie Sojourner by 64 votes in November. Sojourner and Dearing are both from Natchez, and she defeated him in 2011 after he had served 32 years. She's asking the Senate to declare her the winner of the 2015 race, saying that voting irregularities should invalidate Dearing's victory. Because the Senate has different rules than the House, Dearing has not been inaugurated and the District 37 seat is vacant until the dispute is resolved.
Special committees will consider arguments in each election challenge, with final decisions to be made by each chamber.
Legislators will be in session four months this year, which is normal for the first year of a term. After this, each regular session lasts three months.
Extra weeks are built in at the beginning to help new members learn the legislative process. With little to do at the Capitol now, some legislators are driving back home to tend to their regular jobs. Others are using the down time to chat with colleagues or attend lobbyist-sponsored soirees.
During the first week of the session, legislators have had the chance to attend events hosted by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Gov. Phil Bryant, bail agents, county supervisors and the Mississippi Association of Educators. The city of Jackson hosted a large reception the first night of the session under a big tent outside the Capitol, and the Gulf Coast hosted one on the second night in a building on the state fairgrounds in Jackson.
Over the next several weeks, legislators will have food and drink available from a long list of groups, including tourism promoters, circuit clerks, nurses, manufacturers, cattle ranchers and egg marketers.