South Mississippi has long felt that it has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to political clout in the Capitol.
“There has for a long time been a great deal of frustration on the part of South Mississippi legislators with regard to distribution of chairmanships of significance within the legislative hierarchy,” said
Sen. Billy Hewes III, who represents Harrison County. “A lot of us subscribe to the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats. If South Mississippi does well, the whole state does well. Given what we do contribute, we think we should be more active at the table.”
Hewes said while the Coast is not always shortchanged when it comes to legislative acts and projects, the Coast is conspicuously absent when it comes to the most powerful committees. There are no chairmen or vice chairman of these committees in the Senate from the Coast, whose metropolitan populations in roughly equal to Jackson’s. Of 30 standing committees in the Senate, only four committee chairs represent the Coast.
“About 13% of committee chair are people from South Mississippi, which proportionally is about right,” said Sen. Deborah Dawkins, Pass Christian. “But when it comes to chairs of big committees—appropriations, finance, public health and welfare, judiciary, rules and education, South Mississippi is excluded from chairmanships. We get shortchanged in South Mississippi on a daily basis. In fact, for the most part we are excluded from the decision-making process.”
Senators Dawkins and Hewes have frequently tried to amend proposed legislation to require the legislators from South Mississippi be included. They have attempted to insert language that would require task forces to have members from all congressional districts or from all state supreme court districts.
“We have not been very successful in impacting the makeup of special task forces or with appointments to special committees,” said Dawkins, who is the only Coast legislator on the public health committee. “We have less than 10% represented on the tort reform committee. And there are no legislators on the task force that was formed to deal with the Medicaid crisis.”
Who is to blame? Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, who is from North Mississippi, makes the appointments.
“She has power to add or remove anyone from committees,” Dawkins said. “She has an anti-South Mississippi bias. It’s her fault that very little is done to assure South Mississippi is properly represented. And the sooner everyone in South Mississippi knows that, the better.”
Dawkins said she is cautiously optimistic that a new group that is being formed to address the issue will make headway. The group being proposed would hire Jackson attorney and consultant Trey Bobinger III to work on behalf of the interests of the Coastal counties.
“If I were to choose a person to head it up, I couldn’t chose a better one than Trey Bobinger,” Dawkins said. “He understands the process…”
Bobinger said the idea is to bring various economic development, business and education groups from the six southernmost counties together to advocate support to benefit the region as a whole.
“The primary purpose of the alliance is to promote the economic and educational advancement of South Mississippi,” said Bobinger, who is a native of South Mississippi and a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. “Part of this effort is to organize and create an entity to ensure that fairness is exhibited in all matters affecting South Mississippi. The other part of it that is important is that there needs to be coordination of efforts whereby South Mississippi can speak with a unified voice.”
Frank Montague Jr., a Hattiesburg attorney, proposed such a group back in 1989, and groups such as Coast 21 and the Hub Council in Hattiesburg have promoted similar objectives.
“The idea is to try to bring everyone together to see how these groups could work together,” Bobinger said. “The focus is to have a unified voice for South Mississippi to advocate what would benefit not only economic development, but higher education for South Mississippi.”
The group has tentatively been named The Southern Alliance. Bobinger would be the full-time executive director lobbying and monitoring the Legislature, and reporting back to members.
Ed Langdon, one of the organizers of the effort, said that currently a CPA and attorney are working on drafting bylaws and other work necessary to launch the organization. Langdon, chairman and CEO of Grand Bank, Hattiesburg, said they envision the effort piggybacking on efforts made by other groups such as ADP, the Harrison County Development Commission and Coast 21.
“Our intent is to galvanize South Mississippi,” Langdon said. “And our purpose is to ensure fairness, not more than our share. We intend to educate the constituencies as to the intricate details of proposed legislation that affects the educational and economic welfare of South Mississippi.”
Plans are for the group to be organized similar to a trade organization so dues supporting the effort would be tax deductible.
Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said the new group might be confused with an already existing Hattiesburg/Coast coalition group called the South Mississippi Partnership, which was initially started under the name South Mississippi Alliance. The main difference between the two groups is the new group hopes to fund having a full-time executive director in Jackson.
Olivier said there are concerns about confusion between the two groups, but that he supports the stated mission of the new group.
“Economic development and education, absolutely those are things that we promote,” he said. “I think when you look at the constitution of various committees and boards, it seems that South Mississippi does not have the representation you would think it would have given its population and economic base. Our mission has been to create a greater level awareness of regional issues related to economic development and education for our constituency, as well as the legislators.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.