By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – On Jan. 5, 1993, legislators opened their annual session after going through back-to-back elections caused by redistricting delays.
On that opening day, then-Rep. Mike Mills of Fulton raised a point for consideration: Because legislators had just been through an election in November, it was a new three-year term.
Then-Speaker Tim Ford of Baldwyn ruled against Mills’ point, saying that in reality, the customary four-year term actually began in January 1992 after the normally scheduled November 1991 elections.
Under the state Constitution, Ford ruled, legislators were elected for four-year terms.
If Ford, in his second year as speaker, had ruled differently, the House would have had to vote again for the post of speaker.
What happened in the early 1990s is important because the same scenario could very well play out again in 2012 and 2013.
In the early 1990s, the plan to redraw House and Senate districts ended up in the federal courts, where a three-judge panel ordered legislators to run in 1991 under the existing lines.
Legislators then had to run again in 1992 under new lines they had drawn earlier that year in regular session.
Mississippi again has been thrown into federal court over legislative redistricting, although there are major differences in the circumstances from 20 years ago and now.
But a three-judge panel again could order legislators to run two years in a row.
Since the current rift over legislative redistricting is caused by partisan bickering – both Republicans and Democrats jockeying to be in position to elect the next speaker – what occurred in the 1990s takes on even greater relevance.
Ford had been opposed by Ed Perry of Oxford in January 1992 for the post of speaker. People who remember 1993 say Mills, who voted for Ford in 1992, actually agreed with Ford’s ruling that it was not a new three-year term and thus no need for a new speaker’s race.
According to the House Journal, Mills said he was raising the point “for the good of the House” or perhaps to settle the issue once and for all.
Research of the issue
In December 1992, perhaps anticipating the question about whether the House would need another election for speaker, staff attorney Ronnie Frith researched the issue.
Frith concluded that there would not be another election for speaker because under rules of the House, the speaker was elected for a four-year term or “until the next regular session of the Legislature following an election for governor and the members of the Legislature.”
When Frith wrote his memo, there had just been an election for members of the Legislature, but not for governor.
But what might happen this time around with two consecutive years of elections is not clear-cut. If control of the House were to change from one year to the next, all sorts of parliamentary maneuvering could ensue.
While Frith concluded that the speaker and other House officers were elected to four-year terms, he wrote that if the speaker ruled – as Ford did – that it was not a new term and therefore no speaker election was needed, any member could appeal the decision.
Then “a majority of the House could overrule the speaker and require new elections for House officers to be held.”
No one appealed Ford’s ruling in 1993. But in today’s partisan environment, that might not be the case.
The speaker’s ruling might be appealed if one party won the majority this November and lost that majority the following November. The issue could even end up in court on constitutional challenges.
“If we came back with a majority (after a second round of elections) I am sure we would want to change the speaker,” said Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg. “I am not sure whether we would be able to.”
Some have speculated that two consecutive years of elections would help Republican legislative candidates. Generally speaking, Republicans in Mississippi have access to more campaign funds and thus might be in better position to run two years in a row.
Plus, some believe Republicans would have another advantage because they would be on the ballot with presidential candidates. In Mississippi, a heavy GOP turnout would be likely in opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.