Analysis: Gunn shores up strength in second year

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Speaker Philip Gunn has emerged as a stronger figure in his second year at the helm of Mississippi House.

Last year, Gunn often seemed to be first among equals in a group of senior House Republicans. This year, he appears to be more firmly in charge. He has also managed to avoid getting permanently aligned with either Gov. Phil Bryant or Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, maintaining freedom of action as his own man.

The third-term Clinton lawmaker, who just turned 50, did a lot of spadework to get to this point, including years’ worth of lunches and dinners with House members to cultivate them as potential allies. He’s also got a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor that can defuse tense moments in the 122-member chamber.

Mississippi speakers are noted, historically, for iron rule and long tenures. That made them so powerful that the governor today works in a white skyscraper named for a former speaker, Walter Sillers. Ultimately, House members revolted against Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman in 1987, changing the rules to spread out power in the chamber and decrease the speaker’s ability to banish opponents to meaningless committees.

But Gunn, the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction, still has power. One example of Gunn’s firmer hand showed last week after a presentation by state Auditor Stacey Pickering. Many Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee appeared eager to tinker with the state school funding formula — the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. But Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, told reporters after the meeting that Gunn had told him flatly to do nothing, even though Frierson said he’d like to change how student attendance numbers are counted.

Gunn himself had expressed the same disinterest to reporters days earlier, meaning he’d steer clear of taking on an additional big issue in a session where the education agenda is already loaded.

Education issues also show how Gunn has retained his independence from fellow Republicans Bryant and Reeves.

Gunn has made clear that Reeves’ insistence on a charter school bill that didn’t give a veto to “C” rated districts could sink the bill in the House, where support for the alternative form of public schools is weaker. There, Gunn seems to be more in tune with Bryant, who has emphasized a desire for expanding charter authority in Mississippi but has expressed flexibility on the details.

But last week, the speaker lined up with Reeves to endorse a limited form of state-funded prekindergarten programs. Gunn and Reeves endorsed a proposal that would allow local consortiums to get state money to provide classes. In doing so, they implicitly turned their backs on Bryant’s plan to provide state money to Mississippi Building Blocks, a private group that has been paying for teachers to mentor instructors in child care centers and teach some classes.

Bryant said after the announcement that the two programs weren’t mutually exclusive, but few lawmakers seem to be talking about spending state money on Building Blocks.

Gunn has also made moves to remedy one of the speaker’s key disadvantages in comparison to the governor and lieutenant governor — a lack of staff. He angered many Democrats last year when he hired Nathan Wells, a former campaign consultant and state Republican Party employee, as his chief of staff. This year, Gunn has added a group of interns. That gets him closer to matching the ability of the governor and lieutenant governor to use employees to shape and monitor legislation, and could give Gunn a stronger hand when the two bodies begin conferring on differences in bills that each has passed.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy