By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The 2011 legislative session began with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant as the favorite in this year’s gubernatorial race to replace Haley Barbour.
Bryant still is considered the favorite, but that does not mean he has not absorbed a few bumps and bruises during the 2011 legislative session.
The Republican Bryant, who presides over the Senate, took his most public spanking when the chamber, including many Republicans, rejected his alternative redistricting plan.
Bryant’s alternative proposal was about Republican gubernatorial politics. He faces a challenge – perhaps a serious one – from Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis in the Republican primary.
Many Republicans in the Hattiesburg area were upset that the Senate redistricting plan developed through the normal committee process made one of the three Senate districts that encompasses Hattiesburg a black majority district – presumably a Democratic district – in place of the three Republican districts that are now in the area.
In a Republican primary, votes from the Hattiesburg area could mean the difference between winning and losing.
Bryant could have easily stayed out of the process and told the Hattiesburg residents upset about the black-majority district to talk to Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, whom Bryant put in charge of redistricting.
Normally, the lieutenant governor does not get so involved in redistricting, but this time Bryant did – and he lost.
The impact of that loss probably will not be that consequential for Bryant’s gubernatorial campaign, but a successful legislator, sitting in his office in the state Capitol, once said, “It’s never good to lose in this building.”
Bryant faces other redistricting obstacles. He runs the risk of being viewed as the person who stalled the redistricting process and threw it into the courts.
In past redistricting efforts, each chamber has just rubber-stamped the plan of the other house. Bryant has indicated he does not plan to do that year, saying he would give the House plan a thorough review.
The Senate Elections Committee already has rejected the House plan once. If the Senate ultimately rejects the House plan, throwing the plans into courts and costing the state additional money, Bryant could receive the bulk of the credit or the blame.
But where the session has been especially bumpy for Bryant is in developing the state budget. Bryant tabbed the likable Doug Davis, R-Hernando, as Appropriations chairman to replace Alan Nunnelee, who was elected to the U.S. Congress.
As chairman, Davis has tried to cut funding for the community colleges and for public education. The full Senate has rejected both of Davis’ efforts.
Bryant campaigned on full funding of kindergarten through 12th grade education when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2007.
The revenue shortfall caused by the historic slowdown in state revenue collections has made full funding difficult. But educators began the 2011 session hopeful they would receive level funding.
Davis wants to count $65 million in federal funds, which educators were told they could use this year, to obtain level funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
A large majority of the House and Senate has rejected that plan offered by Davis.
Perhaps another possible stumbling block for Bryant was Davis’ effort to insert language in an appropriations bill that could shut down the state retirement system.
Now, retirees do not need to worry. The House leadership said it will not accept the Senate language and Bryant says he also opposes the language.
But will there be any guilt by association from retirees since Davis is a Bryant appointee as Appropriations chairman?
In a GOP primary where voters tend to be more conservative, efforts to curtail funding for education and block a redistricting plan opposed by many Republicans might be a plus for Bryant. Some might even want to undertake efforts to curtail the state retirement system.
All of those issues ultimately might be beneficial to Bryant. But one thing is for certain – the 2011 session has plenty of challenges for the gubernatorial front-runner
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at email@example.com or call (601) 353-3119.