Gaining stronger control in the 2015 elections helped the GOP achieve long-held goals in 2016, including appointing superintendents and phasing out the franchise tax.
But the 2016 legislative session was at times bitterly divisive.
Republicans ramrodded through some measures over intense opposition, and flagging tax revenues meant budget cuts few embraced. Efforts to raise money for roads and bridges and rewrite the state’s K-12 school funding formula collapsed among internal GOP dissension. Democrats, especially in the House, tried to obstruct business with every procedural trick they knew, but their numbers were too few to stop much.
The first year of this four-year term suggests Republicans will be able to get what they want when united.
“We kept education level-funded when everything else was cut,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said Thursday of achievements. “We passed appointed superintendents. We expanded charter schools. We did a tax cut. We kept spending within our means. We didn’t spend more than we had. We passed a very important bond bill.”
Opponents who feel locked out of decision-making may choose to fight the GOP through disruptive tactics inside and outside the Legislature.
“This has been one of the most disappointing sessions I have ever experienced,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “I think we’ve done a lot of shortsighted and irresponsible things. … Just because they have the power doesn’t mean they should do this.”
The session opened with House Republicans unseating longtime Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton of Taylorsville and awarding his place to Republican Mark Tullos of Raleigh, saying Smith County officials improperly accepted ballots that gave Eaton a tie and allowed him to win a straw drawing to hold the seat. A truce after a dispute over redrawing state Supreme Court districts collapsed when Democrats forced more bills to be read aloud to slow business and Gunn turned up the speed of a bill-reading machine to an unintelligible blur. Gunn said Thursday that internal bickering is of little concern to voters.
“I don’t think they care whether we get along or not,” Gunn said. “I think what the public cares about is ‘What have you done for us?'”
Even some Republicans said they’d like to find ways to tamp down conflict in the House.
“There seems to be this negative environment that it’s us against them,” said Rep. Rob Robertson, R-Starkville. “I can promise you that’s not my position.”
One prime example was the bill that strips control of Jackson’s airports from a mayor-appointed board. A law allowing religious groups and some businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples and transgender people continues to produce pushback, though Republicans say opponents are misinterpreting House Bill 1523.
“It deals with deeply held religious beliefs,” said Gov. Phil Bryant, who said opponents are overreacting. “It’s not going to take anyone’s rights away from them. It simply said the government cannot discriminate against people of faith or religious organizations.”
Besides elected superintendents, Republicans said they’re also proud of measures that create a statewide school district to take over poor-performing schools, allow some students to cross district lines to attend charter schools and raise passing scores for a third-grade reading test.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves cited as a top accomplishment a $415 million tax cut that phases out the franchise tax and some income taxes over 12 years.
Democrats question tax cuts, citing lagging revenues that left most agencies with budget reductions.
“It’s not that you’re not for tax cuts, but when you can’t pay your bills at home…,” said Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest.
Reeves said lagging revenues force lawmakers to make government more efficient.
“How do we right-size government to provide the services that need to be provided, but doing it in the most efficient way?” he said.
Finally, legislative leaders found Republicans unwilling to make certain moves. Efforts to remove the Confederate battle emblem from Mississippi’s state flag collapsed. Many GOP members balked at raising fuel taxes, killing efforts to increase road and bridge spending. And a bill restricting officials from pocketing campaign money for personal use was smothered on the House floor by high-ranking Republicans, though Gunn said he supported the changes.
Leaders promise study committees this summer to look at further tax changes, rooting out waste in transportation spending and rewriting Mississippi’s K-12 funding formula.
But those are 2017 objectives for the supermajority.
» Jeff Amy has covered Mississippi government and politics for The Associated Press since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.
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