Region has influence but fewer key positions in state legislature

djournal-state-news-mississippiBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Not too long ago, if major policy was to be enacted in the state, chances are a Northeast Mississippi legislator was playing a key role.

For five consecutive terms, the speaker of the Mississippi House hailed from Northeast Mississippi. But it did not stop there. At various times in recent terms, Northeast Mississippians chaired most of the Legislature’s major committees, including Appropriations on the Senate side, both Finance and Ways and Means, Education, Judiciary A, Public Health, Transportation.

The list goes on and on.

“I think it runs in cycles,” said Sen. Nickey Browning, R-Pontotoc, who chairs County Affairs. “We went through a period where we had a lot of influence – not that we don’t now.

“We still have a lot of influence in the legislative process because we are well-respected. Legislation still needs the backing of Northeast Mississippi to be successful, and if you are running for statewide office, I think doing well in Northeast Mississippi is a key.”

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldywn, who chairs the newly created Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, agrees.

“I think our Northeast Mississippi delegation is well-respected,” Turner said. He said the area delegation still has considerable clout because “we have access to the speaker, the governor and the lieutenant governor.”

Others agreed the delegation has earned respect and thus access and clout. But most would agree that key committee assignments in the Legislature result in more access and clout.

Two terms ago, the late Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee; Travis Little, R-Corinth, was the Senate pro tem; Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, chaired Public Health and the lieutenant governor herself, Amy Tuck, hailed from Maben.

Over in the House at the same time, Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was speaker; Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, chaired Public Health; Bill Miles, D-Fulton, was Transportation Committee chairman and other committees were headed by Northeast Mississippians.

Nunnelee later chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee before being elected to the U.S. House in 2010.

Now Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, who switched to the majority Republican Party days after being re-elected as a Democrat in 2011, might be the most influential Northeast Mississippian as chairman of the Education Committee where he is a key ally of Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, also is a key Reeves’ ally and like Turner in the House, chairs the newly created Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee in the Senate.

Reps. Jeff Smith and Gary Chism, two Lowndes County Republicans, live outside the Daily Journal’s area, but represent the broader Northeast Mississippi region and have key committee assignments. Smith, in particular, for the second consecutive time, lost his bid for speaker, but is now chairman of the tax-writing and revenue-producing Ways and Means Committee.

There’s a splattering of other committees chaired by Northeast Mississippians.

Holland, who no longer chairs a committee after five terms as the head of first Agriculture and then Public Health, said putting more Northeast Mississippians in charge would be as simple as Democrats regaining control of the House in 2015.

Holland said House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, “has deep, deep family relations in Tishomingo and Prentiss counties. He has a real fondness for the area. Northeast Mississippi would be looked on favorably by Speaker Moak.”

Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, said he assumes the power in the Legislature is cyclical, but said much now seems to be focused in central Mississippi. Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves all hail from central Mississippi that did exceptionally well during the 2013 session – receiving a large number of bond projects and the unprecedented tax break for an outlet mall in Pearl.

Sen. Hob. Bryan, D-Amory, who at one point chaired the powerful Finance Committee, in the Senate, said the focus on geography is overrated. He said most legislators enter the Capitol trying to do what they think is best for the state.

“Having legislators from other parts of the state out to get another region of the state has not been my experience,” he said. “I have approached any number of people from other parts of the state about helping me with a project. And if it made sense to them, they did.”

Bain, a freshman House member, said it is his experience that one advantage the Northeast Mississippi delegation seems to continue to have is that “we all stick together. I think that sets us apart.”

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com