SID SALTER: Speaker's race only one component of changes

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – While it’s the intensifying race to choose a new speaker to lead the Mississippi House of Representatives that is getting most of the attention, the speaker’s race is only one component of the wholesale changes that will be coming to the State Capitol Building after the November general election.
First is the administration of a new governor to replace the term-limited Gov. Haley Barbour. Barbour has by the force of his political skills and the installation and enforcement of Washington-style partisan discipline been able to operate as a far stronger governor than the powers afforded a Mississippi governor in the 1890 state constitution truly allows.
After the November race between Republican Phil Bryant and Democrat Johnny DuPree is done, state voters will learn whether the era of the strong governor over. Will party loyalty trump personal ambitions at the Capitol or will state government return to the previous model in which the House speaker and the lieutenant governor wield the most significant power in state government? Clearly, the answers to those questions will have much to do with the success of the next gubernatorial administration.
Bryant, the frontrunner, and DuPree are both quality candidates. Dupree has proven his mettle against better financed candidates in the Democratic primaries. But with three ballot initiatives on the November ballot that would seem political catnip to conservatives – eminent domain, voter ID and personhood – DuPree faces what will likely be a heavy turnout of conservative voters that more likely to skew to the GOP.
Mississippi Democrats haven’t won a 50 percent-plus one majority in a governor’s race since Ray Mabus did it in 1987 against Tupelo Republican Jack Reed Sr. and have only held the Governor’s Mansion for four years since that time during former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s lone term from 2000-2004.
Beyond the fact that Mississippi will have a new governor is the installation of a new state Senate leadership regime under Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves. That change will bring new committee chairmen and a new dynamic to how the Senate is likely to operate. Based on his track record as state treasurer, Reeves is expected to opt for a more traditional strong leader role.
Will Reeves opt for a more partisan method of dealing with Democrats in the Senate appointment process – one modeled more to how House Speaker Billy McCoy dealt with House Republicans in the appointment process in that chamber over the last four years – or will he include conservative Democrats in the Senate leadership?
Those are questions that will help define the lay of the political land in the state over the next four years.
In the House, there’s first the matter of which party gains control of the chamber after November. While it’s certainly possible that the GOP could make up enough seats to gain control, the more likely scenario is that expected Republican gains will leave the House at near parity. In that instance, the three main factions in the House – the Republicans, the House Black Caucus and the mostly rural white Democrats – will be forced to form coalitions if a pure party line vote is unsuccessful.
That face becomes a sticky wicket for House members on both sides because of the solid chance that legislators will have a run again in 2012 for their seats after legislative redistricting.
But perhaps the largest change at the State Capitol in 2012 will be the absence of federal earmark spending. What did federal earmarks mean to Mississippi? In 2010, a conservative estimate is about $560 million for about 240 different projects statewide. There is no ready source of revenue to offset that loss. That will lead to changes in state government that will be felt far beyond the Capitol Building.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.