BOBBY HARRISON: The Senate giveth, taketh away

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Republican Treasurer Tate Reeves has said he wants to be lieutenant governor to have more influence in developing policy.
His opponent – Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport – is revealing who he would appoint to key committee chairs should he win the office of lieutenant governor.
The winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary between Hewes and Reeves will be the next lieutenant governor. The Democrats, in perhaps the greatest political failure of the current election cycle, did not field a candidate. Reform Party candidate Tracella Lou O’Hara Hill of Terry will be the only candidate beside the Republican winner on the November general election ballot.
Still, both Reeves, the presumptive front-runner, and Hewes might be jumping the gun a bit by talking about their significant influence over policy as lieutenant governor or by appointing committee chairs.
After all, the immense power the lieutenant governor has is granted by the 52 members of the state Senate. The only power the state Constitution gives the lieutenant governor is to fill in when the governor is unavailable (including what now seems the anachronistic provision when the governor is out of state) and to preside over the Senate, including breaking any tie vote.
The real power the lieutenant governor has is to name committee members (including chairs) and to assign legislation to committee.
That power is granted by the Senate rules – as adopted by the members – and makes the lieutenant governor one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Without that power granted by the Senate rules, the lieutenant governor would be little more than a figurehead.
The power to name committees is significant. That gives the lieutenant governor the ability to stack committees where he might have a special interest to ensure that legislation he supports gets favorable treatment. And committee chairs – appointed by the lieutenant governor – are usually beholden to the lieutenant governor. Remember, the committee chairs have the ability to kill legislation simply by not bringing it up.
It happens all the time.
And the real power of the lieutenant governor might be his or her ability to assign legislation to committees. The lieutenant governor can speed legislation along or kill it based on the committee assignment.
The Senate could take all that power away by simply changing its rules by a majority vote early in the next term. The power could be vested in a Senate committee or in even in a Senate leader.
That is not likely to occur this January or this term. But the core of the legislative process is about having the power to affect change. Being in the group that has power is always the goal of every member. At some point in the state’s history, there will be a Senate body that for whatever reason opts to change the rules that give the lieutenant governor the control of that chamber.
In 2007, Mississippians elected 28 Democrats and 24 Republicans to the Senate, as well as Republican Phil Bryant to the office of lieutenant governor. In the murky political process where it is not unusual for people to change party allegiance to further their own political power, it is not likely the Democrats would have been able to change the rules to strip the lieutenant governor’s office of part or all of its power.
A fair voice promised
But on paper the Democrats had the votes. Plus, Bryant was viewed as an outsider – never having served in the Senate.
Before the session started, Bryant met with Senate Democrats. He committed to appointing Senate Democrats to committee chairs (there were not enough Republicans anyway to fill the more than 30 Senate committees) and, in general, he promised to give Democrats a fair voice in the process.
Plus, he promised to not to try to penalize Democrats in the upcoming redistricting process. Bryant says he kept his commitments. Some Democrats say he did not honor the spirit of that agreement and regret not making a run at the Senate rules when they had the chance.
The Senate has 27 Republicans in the 52-member chamber. It is possible, though not likely, that the Democrats could regain the majority in the upcoming election.
Probably not this year, but at some point the Senate majority most likely will decide they do not want to give the lieutenant governor so much power.
That would mark a significant change in the state’s political process.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or (601) 353-3119.