Subplots make for an odd legislative year

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The recently completed 2011 legislative session was in many ways a mixed bag.
Despite the state’s struggles with revenue collections, lawmakers agreed on a plan to fund state government with relatively little controversy and basically on time.
But legislators could not agree on a plan to redraw House and Senate districts to adhere to population shifts found by the 2010 census.
“It was unlike any session I have witnessed in my eight years,” said Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, chair of the House Republican Conference. “It was dominated by redistricting. The budget debate lasted a week or two. Everything else was really routine.”
Conventional wisdom holds that legislators don’t accomplish much in an election year. But in this election year, legislators did finally pass a bill to make the abuse of dogs and cats a felony – albeit on the second offense.
However, legislators still refused to institute a statewide smoking ban in public places such as restaurants, despite hearing evidence from health care experts on the dangers of secondhand smoke.
While politics is an integral part of any session, the political intrigue during the 2011 session was perhaps unlike any in the state’s history. After all, Gov. Haley Barbour appears to be preparing to run for president and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, is running for the vacant post of governor.
To complete the domino effect, Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes R-Gulfport, is running to replace Bryant. And as the November elections inch closer, Senate candidates will vie to replace Hewes as pro tem. The outcome of that race could be determined by which party wins the majority in the Senate in the November elections.
In all, five legislators are running for other offices.
In terms of actual work, the budget came together in a surprisingly quick fashion, given the state’s trouble with revenue collecions.
Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarkdale, said he was pleased with the lack of contentiousness between the House and Senate in developing a budget
“There wasn’t the bickering going back and forth,” said Mayo, who added he thought newly appointed Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernado, helped set the tone. “Otherwise it was a typical session. We did not have a lot of controversial stuff.”
In general, most entities, including education and mental health, were pleased with their level of funding in the budget passed by the 2011 Legislature.
Byrant said that while the budget agreement was not perfect, it accomplished the important goals of level funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and of placing $206 million in reserves.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said that while the budget does not provide everything the House wanted, he said, it did “adequately fund our state agencies, including those that were threatened by severe funding cuts – public schools, mental health, public libraries, homestead exemption, vital agriculture and forestry programs and other areas.”
In many ways, the 2011 session was more about the powers that be – on both the Democratic and Republican sides – preparing for the upcoming elections and the ensuing battle to elect a speaker at the beginning of the 2012 term.
In the coming weeks, all eyes will be on McCoy to see whether he decides to run again for a third term as the House presiding officer or to retire. He has yet to make that announcement.
And the importance of his position was reflected in the Legislature’s unfinished business.
“The speaker’s race is what this redistricting fight is all about,” said Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.