ANALYSIS: Session shows GOP power great, but not unlimited

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Expectations were sky-high.

Republicans, after years of fighting against Democrats who controlled the state House of Representatives, took complete control of Mississippi’s government in January for the first time in 140 years.

Newly-elected Gov. Phil Bryant, among others, cast the transition as epochal.

“In my lifetime, there has never been such an historic change as we are witnessing in our state government,” Bryant said in his State of the State address Jan. 24. “In the few weeks since January began, Mississippi welcomed a new lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and inaugurated a new governor. For the first time in generations, all three share a common conservative philosophy about how best to move our state forward.”

That control helped the GOP accomplish many of its goals in the 2012 session, including passing a budget that saves money for future years, cutting inventory taxes, limiting the attorney general’s power and passing rules aimed at closing the state’s sole abortion clinic.

“I think conservatives will be elated as what you can get done,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, one of the Republicans leading Mississippi government, along with Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton.

But the session showed that Republican power is not unlimited, in part because not all Republicans agree on all issues. It highlighted Reeves’ emergence as a power in the legislative process. And in the House, Democrats tried to adapt to minority status.

Intra-Republican disagreement was most apparent on charter schools, where some House Republicans opposed bills backed by their leaders. Republican opinions also didn’t align on borrowing money in a bond bill, on lifting civil service protections from state employees, or on cracking down on illegal immigration.

In those cases, lawmakers put their constituents’ wishes first, said Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale.

“Local interest will drive how you vote,” he said. “They’re voting the way their local folks want them to vote.”

Gunn and Reeves said they accept that there will be some divisions.

“We don’t always agree on every issue,” Reeves said. “That’s not surprising and that’s fine.”

Observers, though, say Reeves appears to have the Senate on a tighter leash than Gunn has the House. In part, that’s because Republicans have a 31-21 majority in the chamber, wider than the GOP’s 64-58 House edge.

House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said lieutenant governors have historically had a “stronger grasp,” given the Senate’s smaller size and more reserved nature.

Reeves was willing to go without a bond bill, meaning local governments won’t get aid to replace bridges or buy new fire trucks in the 2013 budget year. Colleges and universities won’t get more money to repair buildings or build new ones.

The former state treasurer had warned that state debt was getting too high, and was quite willing to borrow no money when House negotiators wouldn’t agree to his demands.

“There also becomes a point where you can’t compromise your principles,” Reeves said. “I have very strong beliefs as it relates to the state becoming more fiscally responsible.”

Reeves also declined to further cut back his proposals for charter schools. Instead he aims to build public pressure for charter schools statewide.

“I expect us to get an even stronger charter school bill,” Reeves said. “We’ve already got one bad charter school bill on the books. We don’t need another.”

Reeves allowed Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, to shelve a bill clamping down on illegal immigrants. That move won criticism from the Mississippi Tea Party, but plaudits from Democrats.

“Our current leader is focusing on statewide policy, as opposed to issues that might get one segment of people riled up,” said Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson “He’s not a weather vane lieutenant governor.”

Reeves’ influence extends down to the committee level in the Senate.

“You want to make sure that legislation that gets to the Senate floor is something conservative Mississippians can support,” he said.

In the House, committee leaders got more leeway to bring out legislation reflecting their personal preferences.

“I have allowed them to work,” Gunn said of his chairs. “I have turned responsibility over to them and our committees and I’m very proud.”

The oft-raucous House had a near-breakdown early in the session, when Democrats began forcing every bill to be read at length. But Gunn and Democrats reached a truce: Some divisive bills never came to the floor, Democrats got leeway in debate and the minority stopped clogging business.

“I don’t think as a whole they were obstructionist,” Gunn said of Democrats. “I would like to think they had the chance to ask every question they wanted to ask, offer every amendment they wanted to offer, debate every issue they wanted to debate.”

Moak said Democrats backed away from total warfare.

“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it,” he said.

Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, House majority leader in the previous term, said he thought minority status united Democrats.

“It really has brought the Democratic membership closer together than what we have been,” he said.

On the budget, Democrats were hemmed in by a new parliamentary rule forcing lawmakers to propose cuts to one area if they wanted to add money to another. Clarke, the Senate Appropriations Chairman, said that made it easier to push through leaders’ decision to save more than $200 million for 2014 and later years.

“That probably cut down debate on the floor,” he said. “I think it did at both ends of the Capitol.”

Ellis said Democrats’ role, in part, became to “shed more light” on subjects through debate.

Moak said that beyond a “strong voice,” Democratic successes came mainly when some Republicans disagreed with other members of the GOP.

“We’re proud to join up with them on those particular issues,” Moak said.