BOBBY HARRISON: Partisanship diminished the Legislature’s power

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – People often say that when Haley Barbour’s tenure as governor ends in January 2012, the Legislature will reassert its authority as the most powerful branch of government in Mississippi.
True, Barbour has wrested more power from the Legislature than probably any other governor in state history. The conventional wisdom always has been that the state’s 1890 Constitution made the governor weak and the Legislature strong.
True, governors of other state have constitutional powers that the governor of Mississippi does not enjoy. But I always thought it was not entirely correct to discount the power of any governor.
The authority to name heads of agencies that directly affect people’s lives, such as Medicaid, Public Safety and the Department of Health, is an important power in itself.
But it is true that Barbour has enjoyed more power, in large part because Republicans, particularly those in the Legislature, have walked in lockstep with him and have been reluctant to buck his authority.
As we have talked about before, despite this power, Barbour has been forced to make more compromises than most people realize.
Still, in general, Barbour’s power has been more than most Mississippi governors.
Part of that power is derived from his unmatched political skills, which include his communication abilities and knowledge of the issues.
But part of Barbour’s power also is derived from the changing nature of Mississippi politics.
The state is more partisan. In the old days, legislators in Mississippi viewed any governor as the enemy – perhaps a friendly enemy, but the enemy.
It was more the Legislature – all of the Legislature – vs. the governor than it was Republican vs. Democrat.
That is not the case any more.
It is Democrat vs. Republican.
The ally of a Republican legislator is the Republican governor – not a fellow legislator if that legislator is of the opposite party.
In the old days that was not the case, because nearly everyone was a Democrat.
There were shades of Democrats.
There were rural Democrats, urban Democrats, liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats.
The breakdowns were among geographic lines or some other lines more than party lines.
That changed with Barbour.
But it was changing before Barbour.
In former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s last full session, he vetoed part of the budget because the Legislature spent all of two reserve funds. He said one of the reserve funds had to be preserved.
Then-House Speaker Tim Ford, at the time a Baldwyn Democrat, was gung-ho on overriding Musgrove – a fellow Democrat. Ford operated under the old dynamics where the Legislature ran things without respect to the governor.
But other Democrats in the House rose up in revolt, essentially saying they were not going to override a governor from their party in an election year.
While Ford already had made his decision to step down at the end of the term, that as much as anything was an example of why Ford knew it was time for him to leave.
A new day had arrived in Mississippi politics – a more partisan day.
That is not necessarily a bad thing.
It could be argued that partisanship is a better process than the old way of operating Mississippi state government.
It also could be argued that Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee, was in a better position than most to take advantage of it.
The timing, from a partisan perspective, was right for him to be elected governor.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or call (601) 353-3119.