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Phil Bryant

Bill could build up power of Mississippi governor

Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant could get a chance to assert direct control over three large state agencies, enhancing his power in a state where the governor has traditionally been weak in comparative power to the Legislature.

Senate Bill 2567, passed Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would let the governor appoint the leaders of the state Health Department, Mental Health Department and Rehabilitation Services Department. Sponsored by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, the bill awaits debate before the full Senate.

All three departments are currently run by boards appointed by the governor. But those boards typically provide a substantial degree of insulation between the state’s chief executive and the department heads. Agencies where the leader of the department serves at the governor’s pleasure typically follow his wishes closely.

Each department would have a board, but it would be advisory, no longer hiring and firing the director and voting on agency business. Current board members are fighting the changes.

“Public health does not need to be subject to the changing winds of politics,” Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state health board, told The Clarion-Ledger.

The measures target two agencies – Health and Mental Health – whose leaders were vocal last year in saying that state budget cuts would have real impacts on their services.

Mental Health, in particular, is a concern for state leaders, with separate federal and private lawsuits challenging how Mississippi provides care.

The agencies are big, with 12,000 employees among them and roughly $1.25 billion in spending. About $300 million of that comes from the state general fund, mostly for Mental Health operations, which also has about two-thirds of the employees involved.

A proposal to roll the Mississippi Arts Commission into the gubernatorially controlled Mississippi Development Agency is also causing a fuss, although that agency, with a $3.2 million overall budget and 13 employees, is much smaller.

Clarke proposed a series of agency consolidations last year that he claimed would save $60 million. The largest would have merged Medicaid, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Rehabilitation Services. Another would have tucked the state Forestry Commission, the Board of Animal Health and county livestock operations under the Agriculture Department. The third would have put the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission under the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. All three proposals failed.

Clarke says the new bills are not agency consolidations and are not guaranteed to save money.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, has introduced a similar bill in the House.

It’s no surprise that Bryant wants more control. He has been calling for consolidating agencies.

“With all its fiefdoms, Mississippi government is better designed for feudal society than an effective 21st century government,” Bryant wrote in his budget recommendation for the fiscal year that starts July 1. “While some state agencies are making strides in cross-agency collaboration, we still have work to do to break this silo approach to governing.”

What is surprising is that some in the Legislature want to give this power to him. Lawmakers have traditionally guarded their prerogatives jealously, and have traditionally been the main advocates for agencies run by independent boards.The lieutenant governor, with his control over the state Senate, is often better-placed to impose policy priorities on agencies with independent boards than the governor.

Of course the current lieutenant governor, Republican Tate Reeves, is a likely candidate for governor in 2019, when he hits his two-term limit. Maybe he’d like to take some of his power with him.

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