Analysis: Miss. Senate money chief to train on job

By Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press

The new chief money-minder in the Mississippi Senate is no stranger to on-the-job training.

That part of his background should well serve Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, as he helps lead spending negotiations in one of the state’s toughest budget years in recent history.

At first glance, Davis might not seem an obvious choice for the coveted appropriations position. He’s 33 and is about to begin his seventh year at the Legislature. He’s an unassuming lawmaker devoid of swagger. Most around the Capitol would characterize him as a soft-spoken, nice guy.

His counterpart is House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, a veteran lawmaker who seems well aware of the power he wields in deciding how much money state agencies receive to operate.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant promoted Davis after former Chairman Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Tupelo, was elected to the U.S. House in November.

Davis brings some background in finance to the table. Though he has a degree in history from Mississippi College, he was hired at Batesville-based First Security Bank in 2001. There, Davis said he was taught about lending and other banking practices. Davis said his employer told him: “‘We just want somebody the people up here know.'”

After Bryant was elected lieutenant governor in 2007, he tapped Davis to lead the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee. That’s when Davis got a real brush with political controversy.

Last session, he found himself in the middle of heated debate over Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to merge the state’s seven universities into four. Barbour had proposed combining the three historically black universities into one and merging Mississippi University for Women with Mississippi State University.

Davis filed the bills for the proposals, drawing the ire of HBU supporters, as well as MUW alumni, many of whom marched on the Capitol.

That’s likely nothing compared to the noise that will be made as lawmakers write the fiscal year 2012 spending plan in the spring. Everything from teaching jobs to mental health facilities could be on the chopping block, depending on how the state’s money is divvied for the year that begins July 1.

Revenue collections haven’t kept pace with estimates for the past few years, and lawmakers have responded by eliminating some agency positions and cutting back funding from numerous programs. Agencies already operating on bare-bones budgets in the current year have been told not to expect much relief in 2012.

Davis’ demeanor will determine how he’s compared to his predecessors. Nunnelee was a delegator, relying on work of his subcommittees to formulate spending plans and whose fiscal philosophy most mirrored that of Barbour. Former chairman Jack Gordon, a Democrat from Okolona, was considered a “numbers man,” able to pull budget figures out of thin air, and who took it upon himself to handle every spending bill before the Senate.

Davis, who has sat alongside Nunnelee during budget discussions in the past, is under no illusions about his expertise in such fiscally perilous times.

“I really appreciated the way Congressman-elect Alan Nunnelee allowed the subcommittee chairs to work. I intend to continue that system. You have a lot of senior members in those areas,” Davis said. “I’m going to need a lot of help and input in getting appropriations passed.”

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a key House budget negotiator, said he’s looking forward to working with Davis in his new role. Brown also said from what he’s seen, Davis is ready for the job.

“I think he’s going to be able to step right in and take over without so much as a hiccup,” Brown said.