Committees shape policy at Capitol

By Emily Wagster Pettus | The Associated Press

JACKSON – After Republican Tate Reeves was elected Mississippi lieutenant governor in November, he spent weeks meeting with the 52 state senators to gauge their public policy interests.
He used that information while assigning senators to committees, both as chairmen and as rank-and-file members.
Reeves announced the committee rosters this past Friday, one day after his inauguration, and many senators’ initial assessments were positive. He said he tried to transcend traditional boundaries of party, race and geography.
“It was an incredibly difficult task,” said Reeves, fresh off two terms as state treasurer.
The 122 House members await their committee assignments, and new Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he might announce those late this week.
The committee assignments set the state’s direction the next four years because chairmen have broad powers to determine which bills live or die. Immigration? Abortion? Environmental regulation? Those issues, and others, could come up for debate, and committees are the first filters.
Reeves put Republicans in charge of 21 committees and Democrats in charge of 18.
Some committee assignments are more equal than others, of course. The plum assignments are the two money committees, Appropriations and Finance; along with Education, Public Health, Judiciary A and Judiciary B.
Chairmen of several other committees – Corrections; Highways and Transportation; Universities and Colleges; and Elections – also will get to do plenty of work.
The less glamorous assignments? It’s safe to say that few legislators have long-term aspirations to be chairman of Enrolled Bills or the Executive Contingent Fund Committee.
Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, served in the House from 1980 to 1993 and has been in the Senate since then. As new chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, he believes he’s positioned to do substantial work.
“I won’t be a bench player,” Frazier said. “I’ll be on the field.”
Reeves tapped two of his Republican allies to head the money committees. Third-term Sen. Buck Clarke of Hollandale is chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, an attorney, is chairman of the Finance Committee, which handles taxes, fees and bond bills. Fillingane served in the House from 2000 to 2006 and has been in the Senate since 2007.
Clarke is a certified public accountant and was vice chairman of the Finance Committee last term.
“I do ride around with the budget in my car all the time,” Clarke said.
Second-term Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, is chairman of the Public Property Committee, which is fitting since his district includes the Capitol and several other state office buildings. Blount was also named vice chairman of the Elections Committee, which matches his background as a former longtime staff member for the secretary of state’s office.
“I think the lieutenant governor listened to all of us,” Blount said.
Because the House is larger, Gunn faces a more complex task in making committee assignments. Still, he has already served eight years in the chamber and knows most of his colleagues.
The GOP took over the House majority in the Nov. 8 general election, for the first time since Reconstruction. Republicans met days later and chose Gunn as their consensus candidate for speaker, but he didn’t get the job until Jan. 3, the opening day of the 2012 legislative session.
Four years ago, Republicans tried to topple Democrat Billy McCoy while he sought a second term as speaker. They gambled and lost – and McCoy appointed only Democrats as committee chairmen.
This time, Democrats didn’t nominate a speaker candidate. Gunn is giving few hints about his leadership team, but many lawmakers are hoping he’ll opt for some diversity, as Reeves did in the Senate.

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