Important, critical and sometimes controversial decisions that will impact us all by shaping the future of Mississippi are being made in the state capitol as the 124th legislative session moves into the third week of its 90-day session.
Most of us know little about how those decisions occur or the people who make them.
Here’s an attempt to shed light on both.
First, the capitol building itself. One of the nation’s most beautiful, Mississippi’s “new” capitol was built for $1,093,641 in 1903 on grounds that formerly housed the state penitentiary — a rumor that cells remain under the building is false — and is the state’s third site of state government. Though the legislature, guided by Gov. Andrew Longino, appropriated funds to build a new capitol, back taxes owed by the Illinois Central Railroad actually paid for the work. The “old” capitol, built in 1839, just reopened after extensive renovations and the original statehouse (1822), near Capitol and President Streets, burned.
Unlike many states that have abandoned capitols for separate statehouses, Mississippi’s capitol remains a working institution, housing both chambers of the Legislature and offices for the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house. The former Supreme Court and State Library are now home to committee meetings while the Hall of Governors displays portraits of state leaders dating back to 1790.
Desks in the House are original. Those in the Senate date back to 1940. The eagle that graces the top of the capitol is made of solid copper, 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide. A replica of the Liberty Bell, one of 53 in the world, and a statue erected to honor the memory of women with ties to the Confederacy welcome visitors.
Next, the Legislature.
There are 52 members of the Senate, each elected every four years to serve 53,404 people as determined by the 2000 census. A senator must be 25 years old, a qualified elector four years and a resident of the district he or she seeks to serve for two years. There are 122 members in the House. Residency requirements are the same, but a representative must only be 21 years of age. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant presides over the Senate, Billy McCoy, an elected representative, serves as speaker of the house.
There are no legislative term limits in Mississippi. Each chamber meets Monday through Friday during the sessions. Both houses convene at 4 p.m. Monday, the House at two p.m. and the Senate at 10 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday and both at 9 a.m. Friday. Committees have regularly scheduled times. Legislators earn a base $10,000 salary, but also get a mileage allowance, an out-of-session monthly stipend and a daily subsistence fee for each day in attendance. That totals, roughly, $35,000 annually.
The best way to contact a member is (601) 359-3770. There are 37 standing committees in the House, 33 in the Senate and seven joint committees. All sessions and committee meetings are open to the public. Sessions are televised live, gavel to gavel.
Coats and neckties are mandatory dress for men on the floor. Appropriate dress for women is also required. Student pages must be 13 years old and serve for one week
Now, the elected officials, first the Senate.
There are 27 Democrats and 25 Republicans; 48 men and four women; 39 whites and 13 African-Americans. The average age is 53.9 years with David Jordan the oldest at 74 followed by Bob Dearing (74 this month), Tommy Gollott and Tommy Moffatt, each 73. Michael Watson is the youngest, just turning 31.
Dearing and Gollott have both served in the Senate since 1980, but Gollott has an additional 12 years in the House. Jack Gordon has service in both houses totaling 33 years; Hillman Frazier, 29.
Thirteen align most closely with Southern Miss, nine list Mississippi State, seven Ole Miss, four Jackson State and three Mississippi College. There are 27 Baptists, 10 Methodists, four Episcopalians and three Presbyterians and Catholics.
Interestingly, more were born in Memphis than any Mississippi community and 11 are attorneys.
No less than five Senators previously served in the House. Hob Bryan, David Blount and Hillman Frazier all studied at the University of Virginia; Debbie Dawkins at the London School of Economics. Alice Harden is the longest-serving woman senator with 21 years. Eric Powell (6-6-66) and Gary Jackson (9-11) have easy birthdates to remember. John Horhn, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, is a candidate for the Jackson mayor’s position.
Next, the House.
Though some seem less willing to share personal data, there are 74 Democrats and 48 Republicans; 101 men and 21 women; 86 whites and 36 African-Americans. The average age is 52.2 years with Roger Ishee of Gulfport the oldest at 78 followed by Ray Rogers and Charles Young, each 77. Toby Barker is easily the youngster at 27 though Brandon Jones, Brian Aldridge and Shaun Walley are all 31.
Tyrone Ellis, Bennett Malone, McCoy, Tommy Reynolds, Johnny Stringer, J.L. Warren, Percy Watson and Young have all served since January 1980.
Twenty-eight cite allegiance to Mississippi State, 19 note Southern Miss, 11 Ole Miss, seven Mississippi Valley State, five Tougaloo and Alcorn State, four Delta State and Jackson State. There are 68 Baptists, 20 Methodists, 11 Catholics, five Presbyterians and four Episcopalians.
Nine were born in Jackson, six Tupelo, five Meridian and four Hattiesburg.
Bryant Clark occupies the same seat his dad Robert used as the first elected African-American House member since reconstruction. Kelvin Buck (District 5) and Kimberly Campbell Buck (District 72) are husband and wife. Sidney Bondurant is a physician; James Evans a sports agent. Sam Mims is Sam Mims V. Chuck Middleton’s first name is America. Rita Martinson (9-11) and Aldridge (5-6-77) have easy birthdates to remember. Chuck Espy’s dad, Henry, is a familiar name in state politics and his uncle, Mike, is former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Finally, Sine Die (pronounced SEE-nei DEE-ei ) signals adjournment of the session April 5.
Contact MBJ editor/publisher Ed Darling at firstname.lastname@example.org.