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Legislators feel shortchanged in powerful committees

Lawmakers not optimistic about getting better treatment

What do Coast senators expect from the 2003 session regarding representation on the most powerful committees? Not a lot. Legislators in South Mississippi have felt largely left out of the power structure of the Senate when it comes to key appointments such as committee chairmanships. And they don’t expect much to be different in 2003 than it was in 2002.

Coast legislators have criticized Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck for failing to appoint Coast legislators to important committees, task forces and chairmanships in numbers proportionate to the Coast’s population area.

While South Mississippi represents one of the largest population areas in the state, it has felt left out when it comes to political clout.

For example, of the 26 legislators appointed to the legislative task force on tort reform, only two were from the Coast with a population of 445,000 while there were two from Vicksburg alone, which has a population of 26,000. There were no Coast legislators on the task force created to deal with the Medicaid crisis.

Coast legislators feel particularly shortchanged when it comes to the most powerful committees. There are no chairmen or vice chairmen of these committees in the Senate from the Coast. Of 30 standing committees in the Senate, only four committee chairs are from the Coast.

While many residents might not realize it, the lieutenant governor wields a great deal of power by making appointments to key committees. She also can have a big influence by deciding which committees get bill assignments.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins from Pass Christian has been an outspoken critic of Lt. Gov. Tuck’s treatment of the Coast. Tuck is from North Mississippi.

“She has an anti-South Mississippi bias,” said Dawkins, who along with other legislators has attempted to introduce legislation requiring appointments be evenly spread throughout the state. “It’s her fault that very little is done to assure South Mississippi is properly represented.”

Dawkins said it is not likely the Coast will receive more fair treatment from the lieutenant governor in 2003 than was received in 2002. But she said that the Speaker of the House Tim Ford and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove are more likely to use their power and authority to give considerations to the needs of the southern part of the state.

Dawkins recently read an article where Tuck defended her appointments to state boards and committees saying the Coast came out pretty good overall.

“She says that and gives as evidence appointing Tommy Gollott as chair of the Committee for Economic Development in the Senate,” Dawkins said. “You would think since we are very interested in economic development in Mississippi, there would be be plenty of bills referred to the committee. But, no. Only a very small number of bills were referred to that committee. The lieutenant governor makes all bill referrals. She makes all committee assignments.

“She has stated in The Clarion-Ledger at one point that she had no control over the appropriations process. This is a disingenuous statement at best. She completely controls the appropriations process. She appoints the appropriations chair, she decides what bills go in and she decides what bills go out. I am told she does not give her chairmen the latitude previous lieutenant governors have given to committee chairs. Under her direction most subcommittees have been abolished, which is a reorganization of the management structure of the Senate. Except for those in powerful chairmanships, the rest of the Senate is somewhat impotent. We have to use collateral means to accomplish anything.”

The Sun Herald in Biloxi has speculated that Tuck has worked against South Mississippi because she didn’t carry most counties in that part of the state when she was elected three years ago.

“Tuck was not treated kindly at the polls by South Mississippians in 1999,” The Sun Herald stated in an editorial in December. While she carried George, Hancock and Stone counties by a total of 1,534 votes, she lost Forrest, Harrison, Jackson, Lamar and Pearl River counties by 12,192 votes.

“Maybe that’s why, once in office, Tuck was not particularly kind to this end of the state. As the presiding officer of the state Senate, Tuck has not given South Mississippians their due on Senate committees, nor has she championed an agenda particularly advantageous to South Mississippi.

“That could, of course, change when the Legislature convenes next month. Before asking for another term in office, Tuck has just one more regular session of the Senate to put policy over politics and make a more favorable impression on South Mississippians.”

Tuck, contacted for comment on the issue, did not return telephone calls to the Mississippi Business Journal.

Rep. Billy Hewes, Gulfport, says business and community leaders in South Mississippi will continue to bring about legislation important to the region, particularly in the areas of transportation and economic

development.

“Down here we have some major concern,” Hewes said. “We are getting a more definite commitment from DOT with regard to competition of existing projects as well as the funding of new projects in the highways and intermodal areas of transportation. We have a severe need for assistance with Department of Human Services funds that have been promised, plus new personnel that have not materialized. We are expecting results in the areas that have been promised from the current administration but have yet to be seen. Our ports, public transit and railroads also need attention.”

In the Hattiesburg area, one of the biggest concerns about the next session of the Legislature is the continued budget cuts in higher education.

“We’re very concerned with proposed budget cuts again for the University of Southern Mississippi,” said Gray Swoope, president, Area Development Partnership, Hattiesburg. “Certainly as far as the greater Hattiesburg area, we will continue to try to support funding for institutions of higher learning. Putting on the economic developer’s hat, USM is a business that produces economic benefits throughout the region. If they continue to be cut, we feel impact in the communities and the region. Here is a business that generates income and economic benefits. We don’t want to see higher education cut to the point that it is detrimental.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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