BOBBY HARRISON: Minorities – GOP and Democratic – exert influence

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The minority in both the Mississippi House and Senate has been able to exert influence over the process during the 2010 legislative session.
In the House, the Republican minority exerted influence last week over the budgeting process and over the decision about when the Legislature would recess. And in the Senate, Democrats hold a slight majority, but in reality are the minority because Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant presides and ultimately makes the key decisions in that chamber.
But Senate Democrats have been able to exert tremendous influence this year – particularly in forcing the Senate leadership of Bryant, and Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, to commit to more education funding than they previously supported.
Over in the House, 48 of the 122 members are Republicans. Before the session began, House Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, saying they wanted more input in the process – particularly in budgeting.
The Democratic House leadership countered that the Republicans do have influence – through their votes on the floor and in committee.
Last week Republicans used that floor vote to exert some influence.
The Democratic House leadership and the Republican Senate leaders had reached agreement to recess for about 30 days and come back then to work on what is going to be an ugly budget process because of the unprecedented drop in state tax collections.
The House and Senate leaders reasoned that in 30 days they might know whether they are going to get additional federal stimulus funds to help with their budget woes. Plus, 30 days would give them more of an opportunity to look at state tax collections to see if they are improving – or frightfully worsening.
At any rate, the House leadership did not factor in how their Republican colleagues would react to the plan to recess. They didn’t like it. House Republicans argued the budget work should be completed on the originally agreed-to schedule – even though it would not cost any more money for members to recess and come back in 30 days when they might have a clearer budget picture.
It takes a two-thirds vote to change the rules, including to recess. House Republicans had the votes to block the effort to recess.
In the end, the House Republicans said they wanted an agreement on the amount of revenue available to appropriate, not including the possible additional stimulus funds, before they would vote to recess.
The House Democratic leadership invited the Republicans into the room where they negotiated with the Senate leaders on the amount of money that would be available to spend. After an agreement was reached on the revenue, the House approved a plan to recess without a dissenting vote.
Did the House Republicans’ reluctance to recess force the House Democratic leaders to reach an agreement with the Senate leadership on the revenue sooner than they otherwise would have? That is a tough question to answer.
But after some initial anger over the episode, the result was more dialogue and more cooperation (perhaps short lived, but maybe not) between House Democrats and Republicans.
That is a good thing.
Over in the Senate, Democrats hold a 27-25 advantage, but in reality are a minority because of Bryant’s authority and because of the fact a handful of Democrats always vote with Bryant and the Republicans. But early on, the Democrats flexed their muscle on budget issues.
The Senate Republican leadership showed little inclination to restore any of the budget cuts Barbour had made earlier this year because of the drop in state tax collections.
But on the floor, the Democrats, led by Sens. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, and others, were able to amend bills to restore some funding – particularly to education.
The fact that their efforts were joined by a handful of Republicans made the group a powerful force. In an almost unprecedented move, Bryan and other Senate Democrats began working with the House leadership on budget issues to craft a message and strategy on how to restore funds and on how to maximize funding for education.
Senate Democrats could not garner the two-thirds majority to override Barbour’s veto of the budget restoration bill. But in the end, a second budget restoration bill that was as favorable to public education as the vetoed bill passed, and Barbour and the Republican Senate leadership accepted that. The key difference is that the second bill had more funds for Corrections as Barbour had wanted. The Senate Democrats did not oppose the additional money for prisons as long as it did not negatively impact education.
Through votes on the floor, Bryan and others have been able to force a greater commitment from the Senate leadership for education funding for the upcoming fiscal year when the Legislature resumes the session on April 20.
All that was accomplished because there are Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature who wanted a higher priority placed on education.
But it would not have been accomplished if the Senate Democrats had not led the charge in that chamber.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.