SID SALTER: Will the Legislature reassert dominance after Barbour era?

By Sid Salter

As Mississippians prepare for the Neshoba County Fair – the traditional launching pad for politicians seeking statewide office – the biggest question is whether Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann joins Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis in the 2011 GOP gubernatorial primary.
But perhaps a better question is whether the Legislature will seek to reaffirm and reassert the constitutional muscle that branch of government enjoys in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution’s “weak governor” system in the post-Haley Barbour era.
That question more sharply defines the 2011 governor’s race by raising the issue of what kind of governor Mississippi elects in 2011 – a traditional governor or one with the political skills to offset the constitutional advantages afforded the Legislature and particularly the legislative leadership.
Prior to the Barbour administration, Mississippi governors were with rare exceptions unable to exact their will on the Legislature as an institution. Former Gov. William Winter’s education reforms and the late former Gov. Kirk Fordice’s “rainy day fund” law that limited state spending to 98 percent of revenues with the other two percent earmarked for a “rainy day” fund were rare exceptions.
But Barbour has for seven consecutive legislative sessions been able to use his political skills to turn that Mississippi political truism on its head. Barbour has dominated state policy negotiations by being able to essentially control the state Senate and to maintain the ability to at least block Democratic efforts to buck his policies in the House.
Legislative redistricting looms during the 2011 legislative session along with qualifying deadlines for statewide elections.
There’s a better-than-even chance that state legislators will have to stand for election twice – once in the fall of 2011 in the current districts established after the 2000 Census and again in 2012 in the new legislative districts created after the 2010 Census.
That will make it difficult for any new governor to build the type of party discipline and allegiance that Barbour enjoyed. State legislators facing the possibility of back-to-back elections will be in survival mode and dedicated to the proposition of running their own races.
Another looming problem for a new governor who wants to emulate Barbour’s dominance of the state Capitol is the fact that a contested lieutenant governor’s race and the probability of another divisive speaker’s race in the House will leave some broken political fences that will take time to mend.
After the 2011 statewide elections, look for the Legislature as an institution to attempt to reassert its old dominance with a strong House speaker and a strong lieutenant governor. Look for legislative discipline to be reasserted through the committee system.
Historically, the Legislature has operated as the strong dominant policy maker in state government and the governor served in a more ceremonial and opinion-making role.
Winter was adept at going over the heads of the Legislature directly to the people and the business leaders to win his successes. Fordice was effective based on his confrontational style that sometimes buffaloed lawmakers. But Barbour – unlike any governor during my time covering state politics – knew how to count votes in the Legislature and how to keep them counted.
Does Mississippi want a “strong” governor like Barbour or a more traditional governor – like former Govs. Ray Mabus or Bill Waller Sr.?
That’s perhaps a better question than “who’s in?” or “who’s out?” during the Neshoba County Fair speeches next week.

Sid Salter is Perspective editor at The Clarion-Ledger and a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.