It is that time of year again. Legislators from across the state convene in Jackson for a session that will last for 90 days, ending April 3.
For many of the legislators, there will be little sleep and lots of pressure not only to keep up with progress on hundreds of proposed bills while responding to concerns of constituents, but also maintain business back home while they are away.
In the past few years in addition to the regular session, there have been several special sessions that have been marked by more partisan strife than used to be common with the Legislature. Protracted battles over tort reform have been particularly contentious.
Sen. Billy Hewes (R-Gulfport) said balancing being a legislator with other work responsibilities has always been a challenge. “Increasingly, the demands of legislative service require additional attention outside of the traditional 90-day session in Jackson,” Hewes said.
“Although we are technically part-time as a citizen Legislature, it becomes a full-time responsibility quite often servicing constituent needs and attending meetings required of us as public officials.”
Hewes, who has a two-and-a-half hour drive one way to Jackson from the Coast, said the special sessions have been a particular challenge. In the past, they were usually able to attend to business during special sessions in a day or two.
“But with some very contentious issues over the past couple of years, we have found ourselves in Jackson for weeks and sometimes even months,” said Hewes, who operates insurance and real estate businesses on the Coast. “This makes it very difficult for those of us living and working far from the Capitol. Plans are made and schedules adjusted for our anticipated absence during the regular session, but the unexpected extended departures resulting from special sessions place a significant strain on our families and businesses.”
One way Hewes copes — trying to prevent his wife feeling like she is the head of a single-parent household during much of the year — is by driving home mid-week.
“Very often I make the commute back home mid-week to be on hand for Paula and the kids and return the next morning,” Hewes said. “I miss my family dearly. Fortunately, I am blessed with a very tolerant and supportive wife who keeps things together, and four patient, forgiving and understanding children.”
Hewes said the same goes for his business. While his staff may joke about things being so much better when he’s not around to interfere, it is important for him to be on hand for the day-to-day operations of providing insurance and real estate services to clients.
All that driving is the bane of legislators who live far distances from the Capitol. Of course, cell phones have made it possible to do business while on the road. Hewes said when he is not trying to conduct business and return calls during the commute, he copes with the tedious nature of travel by listening to books on tape.
In the 2004 state election, there were a number of legislators who opted not to seek re-election. In some cases, the increasing time commitment of being a legislator caused such a negative impact on work and family that the legislators threw in the towel.
“No one can make a living solely as a legislator,” Hewes said. “The demands of making ends meet require those in public service to make decisions which significantly affect their lives and livelihoods. Very often, these decisions preclude competent, capable leaders from either seeking office at all or continuing in their present capacity. Unfortunately, the history of public service is littered with broken marriages and bankruptcies resulting from individuals trying to meet their obligations to their constituents, yet being unable to maintain the balance required for a sound home life.”
During the session work is easily measured in terms of the goals, objectives and defined responsibilities — all subject to deadlines. Hewes said the feedback is often instantaneous — you either passed or amended a bill, or you did not.
“Then you decide to either forge ahead, re-strategize or wait to fight another day,” he said. “In this sense, much of our work is done in this encapsulated time frame. Outside of that, we are on call 24/7. So in reality our work is ongoing because there will always be people with needs and agendas who will contact us for assistance. That is the nature of holding public office. It is a wonderful opportunity our constituents have given us. Hopefully, those seeking and holding the public trust understand this from the start.”
The time commitment of being a legislator increases depending on committee and chairmanship appointments. Hewes is chairman of the highways and transportation committee, and also serves on business and financial institutions; environmental protection, conservation and water resources; finance; insurance; legislative budget; municipalities; ports and marine resources and public utilities committees.
Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson) said particularly with committee assignments, a legislator’s work is never done.
“I am fortunate enough to serve on the education, appropriations and budget committees,” Brown said. “As a result, I spend a great deal of my time on issues I consider to be among the state’s most important — education and the budget.”
Brown agrees that the special sessions have made it more difficult to be a legislator while keeping the business running smoothly at home.
“It is difficult to balance my private sector job with my legislative responsibilities,” said Brown, who works as an investment advisor. “The special sessions have made it even more difficult. I am able to handle it by working more hours, not taking any time off and through the wonderful support of my business associates. They are supportive of public service and very understanding of the demands on my time.
“I honestly don’t know how the members from out of town do it. Most of them are making substantial financial and personal sacrifices to serve their districts. It is much harder on them than on those of us from close by. They should be thanked every day by their constituents for their fine service.”
Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.