Wednesday, May 4, 2016
JACKSON Government to an average citizen is what you can watch on C-SPAN, with the drawl of policy explanations and (usually) poor sound and video quality. What no one prepares you for is the color and flair of politicking—cheers, cowbells, standing ovations, hazing and the like. The Legislature really is alive with color in conversation, debate and personality. Mississippi's 2016 legislative session was perfect evidence that politics isn't always what you see on C-SPAN.
The 2016 session marked a turning point in the political landscape of the state. After a contested election resulted in the removal of former Rep. Bo Eaton, a Democrat from Smith County, the GOP gained a supermajority in the House of Representatives—and as a result the Legislature. Even though five Smith County voters have sued the speaker and other Republicans for discounting their votes, in federal court—defendants have until May 23 to file a response—the outcome set up the drama and national attention that defined the 2016 legislative session.
With Eaton's early departure, House Republicans only had to vote along party lines to pass any revenue or tax bills this session, without Democratic opposition. The supermajority seemed to affect more than just votes on revenue bills, however, and tensions in the House seemed to ride a roller coaster of emotion—coasting smoothly on some days and then suddenly twisting into a turbulent, bumpy section on others.
'I Once Was Lost'
On the last day of the session—for the House that is—Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, stood before the House and spoke on his last of several points of personal privilege for the session.
"I come before you today because we—in my opinion—need to do a better job of working along with each other," Straughter told the House before they left for the year.
Straughter has been in the Legislature for almost 21 years now, and he said every lawmaker ought to have a portion (or piece of legislation) to take back to his or her community that made them proud.
"Sometimes we have to have these dialogues with ourselves, you need to vet yourself, and have dialogues with those who might be on the other side of where you are," Straughter told the House. "I believe that if we would sit down and have a dialogue with those who might be opposite of where I am, I think we could find some middle ground."
A few minutes later, the entire House chamber hushed quiet as La'Porsha Renae, a McComb native and recent "American Idol" runner-up, broke into an a cappella version of the hymn "Amazing Grace."
"I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see ...."
Thunderous applause and cheers followed, and one member shouted out, "We sure needed that."
Less than an hour later, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, sat down with reporters to talk about the session. When asked about the supermajority and tensions in the House, Gunn said there is always a period of adjustment after an election cycle.
"I feel—like you have any session after an election—there's always a period of adjustment, and I think we weathered that very well this year. Everyone has new roles and new responsibilities, and it takes some time to figure that out," he told reporters. "We had a few dust-ups, but I worked closely with the Democratic leadership to resolve those, and I think we finished on a very positive note."
Gunn said his door has always been open and that he and his staff have listened to the concerns of minority-party members, and that while there has been some tension this session, now things are moving forward well.
"I don't think we need to get caught up in things that don't affect the public—what affects the public? What affects the public is the legislation that we pass, what affects the public is the policy we pass," Gunn said.
"I don't think the public cares that two members have a fuss on the floor; that's not news, that's tabloidism, that's sensationalism, what matters, and I don't think they care whether or not we get along out there, but I think what the public cares about is, 'What have you done for us?'"
The Strategy of Resistance
Bill reading was the strategy of resistance this year to slow down the legislative process when tensions rose over certain bills, first by the Legislative Black Caucus and then backed by the House Democratic Caucus. A Supreme Court redistricting bill set off the first round of bill reading, which meant the reading of an over 200-page bill that would have put a moratorium on superintendent salaries, which in turn led to House members voting to disallow questions of privilege at all. (Questions of privilege under House rules are those about the rights and reputation of the House and its members).
After some discussion across party lines, the bill reading stopped, and questions of privilege were restored: Members would be recognized immediately to speak on questions of privilege for 10 minutes max. Things moved along just fine, points of personal privilege were taken often, but work more or less got done—until the Jackson airport "takeover" bill came out of the House Ports, Harbors and Airports Committee.
Hinds County Democrats raised an outcry because they claim that after negotiations, the speaker had agreed to kill the bill to give more control over Jackson's airport to state lawmakers. Speaker Gunn denied these allegations and told reporters there was never an agreement to kill the bill. "That's a complete fabrication; they just don't like the bill," Gunn told The Clarion-Ledger the day the bill passed.
After the airport bill passed, and for a while thereafter, Democrats—particularly the Hinds County delegation—led a second-round bill reading in protest. Reading any bill longer than 20 pages meant a delay of at least ten to fifteen minutes. Bills are read by an automated voice, which has its own Twitter account, before members vote on that bill, and only the member who requested the bill be read has to stay in the chamber while it is read. Democrats held bills on a motion to reconsider often—particularly those they voted against almost as a bloc—like House Bill 1523 that many consider a way to legalize discrimination against LGBT citizens and others.
House Democratic Caucus leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said his party worked to get organized this session and moved to do so quickly.
"Organization is not something you typically associate with Democrats—it's a group of very independent-thinking people, and a lot of our House Democrats have several years in the Legislature," Baria said. "Everyone agreed we needed to have some structure."
The House minority caucus had weekly meetings this session, adding what Baria calls "structure" and "formality" that helped bring the group together. Going forward, Baria said they will continue to organize as a group—having whips in committee meetings in order to brief members on legislation before it comes to the floor.
"We understand we are in a rebuilding phase in our party, and we understand that we need to work from the ground-up," Baria said.
As for working across party lines, Baria said he would continue to stick his hand across the aisle to the Speaker and his leadership team. Baria echoed the Speaker's sentiments on "dust-ups."
"The people who vote for us don't want us to come up and fight. They want us to get things done, and they want us to work together," he said.
The Good and the Bad
The House was full of freshmen this year, 25 to be exact: 16 Republicans and nine Democrats. The freshman experience played out differently depending on which party you sided with—unless you are Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, who seemed to vote his conscience on just about every bill. Bomgar said he doesn't believe in artificial trade-offs in life, and said he always had a responsibility to tell the truth with his votes.
"I believe it's your responsibility to your voters and to yourself and, in my case, before God to do what I think is right," Bomgar told the Jackson Free Press.
The majority of House Republicans voted in favor of most budget bills, but Bomgar only voted in favor of four budget bills: the ones that funded the three branches of state government and the bill that paid the state's debt service.
"I believe in smaller government and, you know, government doesn't get smaller when you keep voting for huge budgets," Bomgar said.
Bomgar said his first year in the Legislature was a lot of what he was expecting, and said he did heavy research to determine what was involved before he showed up.
He said it was a great session for tax cuts and education.
"With a Republican supermajority, the votes were there to clear the hurdles to get appointed superintendents and more expansion in charter schools," Bomgar said.
For freshmen Democrats, the experience was a bit different. Dealing with a supermajority meant starting conversations and beginning to learn how the political process works when you're in the minority party. Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said his first session was a good experience that he enjoyed.
"I am excited about the new friendships we've forged so far, and I think next year we will be in better shape to start to change the direction of Mississippi," Bell said after the House adjourned.
When asked what legislation he was proud of that came out of the legislative session, however, Bell struggled to point to any particular bills. Bell said he experienced tensions not just between political parties but between the legislative leadership and the City of Jackson.
"The only way we would be able to get anything accomplished is (we) would have to talk to each other regardless of party affiliation," Bell said at the session's end. "They say a closed mouth doesn't get fed, if you don't ask you don't receive, you have to force conversations to get things started to change our direction, and I think over the next couple years things will get much better."
Jackson vs. the Capitol
The City of Jackson was on the defensive for most of the legislative session, mainly because Sen. Josh Harkins', R-Flowood, introduced an airport "takeover" bill, which gained Republican support and passed through both chambers this session.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who helped lead the fight against the Jackson airport "takeover" bill, says the tone of the Legislature changed this session.
For Jackson, he said, that change of tone started in December 2015 when rumors about the airport bill began circulating. Speaking last week at Koinonia Coffeehouse, Horhn said the airport bill contributed to the "furthering of bad blood between the city of Jackson and the rest of the state."
Horhn said that the City of Jackson needs to be intentional and work toward a relationship with the state's leadership and with the governor in order to improve the respect for the capital city at the Capitol. He said it's a communication issue.
"I think the relationship has got to be improved between the administration of the capital city and the people of the capital city and the Legislature," Horhn said last Friday. "There has got to be a change, we're not going to survive as a metro area if we don't start developing trust among one another."
Jackson might have had a "win" from a bill to create the Capitol Complex Improvement District, thus redirecting more revenue from the State to the City, until it reached conference late in the session.
The mayor supported the initial bill and said in a Facebook post the day it died that "in its original form, (it) would have been integral to City efforts to structure a sound finance plan to guarantee a strong infrastructure system for Mississippi's capital city."
But by the time the bill made it through a six-person conference with only one Hinds County lawmaker, it contained a poison pill that even soured the Jackson delegation on taking the funds: a special state-appointed judicial seat within the capital city to deal with criminal matters.
"The bill that came out of committee actually created a judicial district in that Capitol Complex for the sole purpose of dealing with criminal matters," Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, told reporters after the Senate adjourned for the session.
"I don't think you have to be a genius to determine that there are real challenges in the criminal-justice system in Hinds County."
Reeves said that in order to address infrastructure problems in the capital, crime needed to be addressed.
"To make that a justified investment by the state, we must help fix the crime problem in the entire city and the entire county, and I think one way to do that is to lessen the burden on the current criminal-justice system," Reeves said.
Jackson City Council President Melvin Priester Jr. expressed his surprise at that last-minute addition to the bill on his Facebook page before lawmakers left town and the bill died: "Then we wake up this morning to no dedicated funding, expanded jurisdiction for the Capitol Police (which happens regardless of funding) and a separate, un-elected judge for this one part of Jackson (assuming this thing ever gets funded)," he wrote.
The legislative session ended early this year, and lawmakers left a bill making domestic violence a ground for divorce as well as campaign finance reform measures for another session.
At the end of the session, Reeves said that lawmakers always leave some things undone in a session and said he takes a slightly different approach than most legislative leaders.
"My view is when it comes to any single piece of legislation, Mississippi has been a state now for 199 years. If we've made it this long without any single piece of legislation becoming law, we probably can make it one more year," Reeves told reporters the day after the Senate adjourned.
"And whether we like it or not, we're going to be back here in January, and we'll have the opportunity to fix anything that didn't get done."
Read more state coverage at jfp.ms/state.
New Laws; What's on Gov. Bryant's Desk
Bills that Became Law:
Appointed Superintendents: All public-school superintendents will be appointed, not elected, after January 2019 by the district's school board.
Charter School Expansion: Any student who resides in the boundaries of a C,D or F district can now attend a charter school; teachers at charter schools are eligible for the state's public retirement system.
Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act: This anti-LGBT bill would allow clerks and other state officials to recuse themselves from doing their jobs based on the religious and moral belief that marriage is between "one man and one woman."
Mississippi Church Protection Act: Churches can create security programs, consisting of armed members of their congregation to protect the church from violent felonies—and be immune from civil liability for any actions taken as a part of the program.
Transportation Network Companies: Uber and other ridesharing companies are now free to operate in the state—and have to pay the Dept. of Insurance $5000 annually to operate
Bills on Governor's Desk: Taxpayer Pay Raise Act: This $450 million tax cut would take two years to kick in full-force and span over 12 years; it aims to eliminate the state's corporate franchise tax and income tax on the first $5,000 of taxable income.
Jackson Airport 'Takeover' Bill: This bill would change the governing authority of the Jackson airport to a nine-member board, which would includes representation from Madison and Rankin counties and appointees from the Lieutenant Governor and Governor.
Defunding Planned Parenthood: This bill would prevent Medicaid from reimbursing Planned Parenthood (which totals less than $500 in funding in the past three years) and the Jackson Women's Health Organization for prescribing birth control or family planning services.
Appropriations Bills: State agency budgets do not have to be signed by the governor for a week or more depending on the specific budget bill
Budget Transparency and Simplification Act: This bill would prevent state agencies from charging or paying one another for services.