By Bobby Harrison | NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – When state Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton was selected in November during a closed-door meeting as the preference of his fellow Republicans to serve as House speaker, he said the House under his leadership would take up a pair of bills that have stalled in previous years.
They include sweeping legislation to limit the ability of the attorney general to hire private attorneys to file lawsuits on behalf of the state and legislation to mandate people who suspect child abuse to report it to law enforcement.
In recent years, bills to do both have passed the Republican-led Senate, but died in the Democratic-controlled House. House Democrats maintained that the Legislature should not infringe on the attorney general’s lawsuit authority and that the Child Protection Act, while a noble gesture, was too far-reaching and would have unintended consequences.
But after the November election, Republicans will control both legislative chambers and the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since the late 1800s. At the very least, there will be fewer obstacles to getting GOP-favored legislation passed during the 2012 session, which begins Tuesday.
Temporarily removing civil service protection for state employees and expanding the state’s charter school law are other proposals that could get more favorable consideration in the House.
“I think we will see some good legislation,” said Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville.
While the Republicans are in charge, both sides are talking about bipartisanship and working together. Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves has pledged to appoint Democrats to head Senate committees. Gunn has played his cards close to the vest in terms of committee assignments.
“I think the thing most people expect is for us to come down and get along,” said Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona. “I think they expect us to be civil … They hope we can work together to move this state forward.”
Reeves said, “The No. 1 priority of state government must be to create an environment which encourages the private sector to invest capital and create jobs.”
He said he anticipates that drawing new legislative districts, reauthorizing the Division of Medicaid, which includes whether to reauthorize a tax on hospitals, and deciding whether to make any changes to the underfunded Public Employees Retirement System will take up much of the session.
Either the Legislature or the federal courts will redraw legislative districts in 2012 to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census. It’s possible there will be new legislative elections later in 2012 under the new districts. Legislators ran in 2011 under the old, malapportioned lines after the House and Senate could not agree on new districts.
Then there is the budget. While state revenue is growing moderately after a two-year period where there was an unprecedented drop in tax collections, the Legislature will face difficult budget decisions.
“With a loss of more than $500 million in one-time monies and more than $1 billion in new agency funding requests, we must be prudent in our spending,” said Gov.-elect Phil Bryant.
Bryant said he hopes education can be level-funded.
“I believe level-funding education as we have done the last two years is the best option,” he said. “I do not want to get back in the practice of having to cut agencies, particularly education, mid- year.”
Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said, “We must have accountability in every department. I am not targeting any particular agency. I am just saying that is what I want to see … I am deeply concerned about education.”
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said while he was disappointed the Democrats lost the House, he’s excited about the new session. Holland said he believes there will be an effort on both sides to work together, but added, “I am not going to stand lightly and see the destruction of government as we know it when it already is as lean as any state government in the nation.”
Carpenter said he believes legislation requiring state law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigration will pass as it has in several other states, including Alabama.
Bryant said: “I look forward to working with our legislative leaders to find a solution (to illegal immigration) that is compatible for Mississippi and is consistent with federal law.”
Bryant, who as lieutenant governor presided over the Senate and once served in the House, said he intends to be “very active in the legislative process and accessible to House and Senate members during the session … We can accomplish great things in the next four years by working together.”