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Analysis: Reeves risks blame if charter bills fail

Tate Reeves looked like a wizard after his first legislative session as Mississippi lieutenant governor. But the reputation of the Republican leader of the Senate could be in for a radical re-evaluation if a charter school expansion doesn’t make it into law in the closing days of the 2013 session.

In 2012, Reeves stiffed the House in bond negotiations, surprising House leaders by deciding to go without a bond bill rather than agree to borrow more money than he wanted. House leaders failed in their attempts to get charter school expansion proposals through their chamber, with their last try dying embarrassingly on a committee vote.

Reeves’ tight management style made it clear that all negotiations with the Senate were talks with him. Overall, the former state treasurer stamped himself as the most powerful figure in the legislative process.

But this year, as Reeves as continued to push for his version of charter school proposals, it’s become possible that a failure will be blamed on him by many Republicans.

Reeves’ my-way-or-the-highway approach has continued in 2013. For example, House leaders were dumbfounded by Reeves’ lack of warning on his decision to reject $60 million in additional revenue projected by estimators for the current budget year. And his decision to meet with House Democrats opposed to charter schools without going through the House leadership was also perceived as a slight.

Already, there are signs that Republican factionalism is breaking into the open in the Senate. The divide between those who supported Reeves and those who supported his GOP primary opponent for lieutenant governor in 2011, then-Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport, had lingered and was reflected in committee appointments. But it was mainly kept out of sight, in part because redistricting gave Reeves a club to hold over disgruntled members’ heads.

In the last few weeks, though, a shifting group of Republican senators led by Chris McDaniel of Ellisville and Michael Watson of Pascagoula has begun voting against bills that many other senators consider noncontroversial. Their opposition has not yet coincided with a bill that Democrats are also opposed, so it hasn’t caused any measures to fail.

But it could make Reeves more reliant on Democratic votes for some of his priorities over the long term, which won’t look good in a Republican primary. McDaniel, for one, has complained he has a hard time even getting a meeting with Reeves. At the same time, some Democrats are thrilled with Reeves’ willingness to listen to them, especially compared to how now-Gov. Phil Bryant treated them last term as lieutenant governor.

After House Speaker Philip Gunn pushed a narrowly-drawn charter school bill through his chamber, the Clinton Republican clearly stated he didn’t think Reeves’ more expansive version would pass the House. Particularly, some representatives balk at voting for a bill that doesn’t give C-rated districts a permanent veto over charter schools in their district. Some House members also want a bill barring students from crossing district lines to attend a charter school elsewhere, and want to ensure a for-profit company can’t run a technically nonprofit school

Reeves offered again this year to give C-rated districts a three-year veto, and offered to limit charters to 15 a year, as the House had proposed. But it seems unlikely those compromises will grease the bill’s passage. If Reeves doesn’t give more in talks with the House, the whole thing could flop.

Reeves’ refusal to compromise on bonds last year looked like strength. But refusing to take 80 percent of what he wants on charter schools could smack of pigheadedness. And Reeves’ internal GOP enemies are likely to pin the blame on him.

— Jeff Amy


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