The curious battle over voter identification and early voting in the state Senate has left Senate Republicans bruised and curious about just who’s setting the agenda in that chamber.
The longtime political model in the state Senate has been that a strong lieutenant governor appointed the committee chairman and thereby wielded strong control over the fate of key issues. Senators who stepped out of line with the lieutenant governor usually didn’t get leadership positions and usually didn’t get much done for their districts, either.
That was the case under former lieutenant governors Brad Dye, Eddie Briggs, Ronnie Musgrove and Amy Tuck. But the current voter ID debacle suggests that we may be operating in a very different model under current Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.
Questions about the strength of Bryant’s leadership began last week when state Sen. Merle Flowers led the Senate Elections Committee to kill the election reform bill that would have finally given Mississippi voter identification. Flowers and his cohorts did so over the objections of Bryant’s Senate Elections Committee chairman Sen. Terry C. Burton, R-Newton.
Flowers joined with fellow GOP Sens. Billy Hewes, Joey Fillingane and Chris McDaniel to kill the election reform bill that House Republicans worked hard to craft.
How unhappy were House Republicans? Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, nobody’s flaming moderate here, wrote in his blog on the subject:
“Elections chairman Sen. Terry Burton (R-Newton) proposed a revised version which solved some problems in the bill, and planned to ask the Senate to pass it over to the House for concurrence or conference. But four fellow Republicans on Burton’s committee just up and killed the bill.
“The ostensible reason for killing the bill is that it contained provisions for early voting as well as for photo Voter I.D. But the early voting provisions were crafted by House Republicans (and revised by Burton) with the active input of both the secretary of state and the governor.
“Had aversion to early voting been the real reason for Senate opposition, the language easily could have been stripped before passing the bill out of committee. The failure of the four senators to even attempt to do that implies there is something else at play. Clearly, these senators didn’t want the bill improved; they wanted it dead,” Snowden concluded.
After killing the bill and drawing withering criticism for doing so from fellow Republicans and even from conservative voices in the media, the Gang of Four (Flowers, Hewes, Fillingane and McDaniel) voted for a rules suspension resolution in an attempt to salvage the bill, but it fell one vote short.
Key Republican walks
Bryant supported reviving the voter ID bill as well, but then watched the rules suspension vote die for the lack of one vote while at least one key Republican senator “took a walk” on the vote.
The net result of this is that Republicans have now handed state Democrats a baseball bat to beat them over the head with every time the issue of voter ID is raised – the fact that House Democrats and Republicans agreed on a voter ID and early voting bill that both parties could support and that Gov. Haley Barbour had said he’d support as well, but the Senate killed the bill when four GOP senators decided to knock the train off the tracks in committee.
For good or ill, voter ID will now be forever tied to early voting as a quid pro quo and Democrats will not compromise without it. Republicans missed a rare window of opportunity to get voter ID and what no one can successfully explain is why. That includes Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.
Statewide syndicated columnist Sid Salter can be reached at (601) 961-7084 or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.