SID SALTER: ’12 promises a new paradigm, but old woes linger

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – Mississippi voters enter 2012 with the assurance of a new – or at least significantly reshuffled – leadership team in state government. Most significantly, the New Year is bringing dramatic changes in the Legislature
Within days, outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour will pass the baton of executive branch leadership to incoming Gov. Phil Bryant. Bryant will be succeeded by new Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy and his party’s leadership in the House will be replaced by a new Republican regime that appears certain to be led by presumptive House Speaker Philip Gunn.
New legislative committee chairs and vice chairs will emerge in both houses of the Legislature. Perhaps more than any single development will be what many predict will be the emergence of a new paradigm in how the Legislature and the new governor interact as compared to how the prior Legislature interacted with Barbour.
While Bryant brings prior legislative experience in both the House and the Senate that Barbour didn’t possess and it’s true that the GOP now controls the House, Senate and the Governor’s Mansion, there is a clear expectation that the Legislature is seeking to reassert its constitutional role as the stronger branch of state government.
The 1890 Constitution provides a system that vests more power in the Legislature than in the state’s governor. Barbour turned that model on its head during his two terms in office, implementing Washington-style party discipline particularly in the state Senate and using that discipline to manipulate state government into a model which pitted Barbour and the Senate in many cases against the House to the benefit of Barbour’s position.
The dynamic of an all-Republican power structure, however, is likely to return the role of the governor to that which existed when the Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Mansion. In that era, the governor enjoyed less power and the stronger figures in state government were the lieutenant governor and the House speaker.
For Bryant, the challenge will be to utilize his prior legislative experience along with the power of the “bully pulpit” of the governor’s office to push for his own reforms. Reeves enjoys a significant GOP majority in the Senate and that will strengthen both his political hand and that of the chamber he leads.
In the House, the partisan divide is not wide enough to give the new speaker a blank check. Republicans don’t have a super majority in the House and governing will require the new GOP House speaker to find a working super majority among individuals from all three major House camps – the Republicans, the rural Democrats and the House Black Caucus.
Many House Republicans are still smarting from what they called “not having a seat at the table” during McCoy’s tenure as House speaker. Some argue for “scorched earth” retribution against House Democrats now that the GOP has the upper hand.
But the more likely outcome is that state government returns to a more familiar, traditional system in which there are institutional political tensions between the House and Senate and between the Legislature and the governor. At the same time, state Republicans are keenly aware of the contempt that political gridlock on Capitol Hill had bred among voters and they will seek to avoid that slippery slope while they are in control across the board at the Mississippi State Capitol.
For if the leadership team is new, many of the vexing problems – the state budget, a staggering economy, redistricting – have changed little since the Legislature adjourned from the 2011 regular session.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com