Session advances GOP agenda

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Republicans, controlling Mississippi government to an extent they haven’t since the late 19th century, didn’t get everything they wanted from the 2012 legislative session, but they got a lot.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, and Gov. Phil Bryant, all Republicans, touted what they described as a productive 2012 session, which ended Thursday, three days ahead of Sunday’s scheduled final day.
“Speaker Gunn and I, as well as Gov. Bryant, worked closely together this session and accomplished some very good things,” said Reeves.
Rumors of a rift, especially between Bryant, the former lieutenant governor, and Reeves were prevalent during the session, and differences were evident at times. For instance, Bryant and Reeves butted heads on some of the nuances of divvying up the state budget.
Reeves did not see eye-to-eye with the House leadership, and presumably Bryant, on the authorization of bonds for renovations and repairs of state buildings and for other long-term construction projects, resulting in no bond bill being passed. Reeves wanted to spend a much smaller amount on bonds than proposed by the House.
But in the end, all sides downplayed any disagreements.
“I am very pleased with the way we have worked together,” Gunn said. “We have had an open line of communication.” Reeves said the leaders worked together to pass “good, strong, conservative legislation.”
ALL NEW
The 2012 session marked the first time since 1976 the governor, speaker and lieutenant governor were new to their positions. And it marked the first time since the late 1800s that Republicans controlled the governor’s office and both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.
House Democrats, the minority party for the first time in their lives, did not know what to expect entering the 2012 session.
“It was a C-plus session,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who was a key member of the leadership before Republicans wrested control in the November elections. “It was fairly short on substance, but we got a budget done and it is a pretty good budget considering where we are in this down economy.
“The greatest disappointment is the lack of a bond bill. I hope our work is not done on that this year.”
There is some speculation that Bryant might call a special session to take up bonds.
Bryant also said at one point he was considering a special session to take up charter school legislation. Senate-passed charter school proposals were killed in the House.
Charter school legislation could be a potential area of conflict for the House and Senate in coming sessions. Gunn said he hopes to reach agreement with Reeves on charter school legislation that can pass the House.
Reeves has indicated he is reluctant to compromise too much more on the issue, saying he plans to campaign across the state to build support for a strong law, which would allow charter schools to operate outside of many of the guidelines and governance of traditional public schools.
While the House killed charter schools, the Senate leadership killed a House priority – legislation that would place the responsibility on local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration policy.
The legislation was killed in the Senate after a broad coalition, including the Mississippi Economic Council, the Farm Bureau, other agriculture groups, local government officials and religious leaders spoke out against the bill.
Bryant, who has close Tea Party ties, also was an advocate for the immigration legislation.
While he opposed the demise of immigration legislation, the governor said he generally liked the results of the 2012 session. Bryant called the session “the most business friendly in Mississippi history” and praised legislators for passing several items on his legislative agenda.
Those items included the Health Care Industry Zone Act, which would provide incentives to new health-related businesses, the Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Act, which will set up a commission to look at whether Mississippi businesses are being over-regulated and a bill that would allow students in danger of dropping out of high school to dually enroll in community college to learn a vocation.
Some of Bryant’s other proposals died, such as a proposal to change the state budgeting process.
The Legislature passed a proposal that puts additional regulations on abortion clinics. The goals, anti-abortion advocates say, is to shut down the state’s only abortion clinic in Jackson.
Republicans also pushed through a litany of other measures, ranging from providing businesses more rights in dealing with conflicts when an employee is injured on the job, to reducing the inventory tax for businesses to trying to limit the ability of the attorney general to hire outside counsel.
“I think it was a great session,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn. “We got to address lot of things that we have been looking at for many years … I think it was a good kick-start to a full four-year term.”
While being in a minority, Democrats had a few reasons to crow. Democrats, with some Republican help in the House, blocked efforts to remove civil service protection for state employees despite strong support for the proposal from both Bryant and Reeves.
And Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Democrats voiced opposition early on when Bryant released his budget that cut education spending by about $100 million.
The final budget approved by the Legislature essentially level funds education.
“Generally speaking, we are all in a pretty good mood with each other,” Bryan said. “I think that is important because it sets the tone for being able to work together for the next three years.”
Gunn echoed similar thoughts when asked if he thought Democrats were obstructionists.
“I believe we worked very well together,” he said. “I think as the session progressed, there was a good spirit, a very good atmosphere.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com