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Bills would empower Mississippi’s legally weak governor

Mississippi lawmakers passed three measures Thursday that could strengthen the traditionally weak powers of the governor.

Senate Bill 2567 would allow Gov. Phil Bryant to appoint the director of the Department of Mental Health, who is currently named by a freestanding board, while House Bill 1425would allow the governor to veto any new regulation proposed by some boards. Meanwhile, House members also removed a block on House Bill 974 , which would let agency heads fire many state employees without going through civil service procedures.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, championed the changes to the mental health agency. He amended the original measure to remove efforts to give the governor control of the state Health Department and state Department of Rehabilitation Services. But Clarke said that, in general, he thought the governor should control agencies the same way the president does at the federal level.

“Having Cabinet members who are accountable to the executive, elected president is how the framers of our Constitution thought things should be run,” Clarke said.

Those who drew up Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, though, had a sharply different vision. They wanted legislators in charge, and dispersed executive power by creating freestanding boards and commissions.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Mental Health was “targeted” because it has bucked the governor and legislative leadership by complaining about budget cuts and fighting for its mission.

“We have found the nation’s leading expert in mental health in the form of the occupant of our governor’s mansion and we want him in charge of the Department of Mental Health?” Bryan said. “Good grief!”

Three Democrats voted for a key procedural vote that kept the bill alive, while seven Republicans voted against it, including Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi.

“We really don’t need to get politics involved in this thing,” Gollott said. “Leave it like it is.”

Representatives narrowly approved House Bill 1425 , saying boards that regulate occupations, such as architecture, would have to send any proposed rules to the governor for approval or veto. The bill was held for the possibility of more debate.

The House sent House Bill 974 , which would remove civil service protections from most state employees, onto the Senate. Democrats have expressed fears that allowing agency heads to fire employees without going through the normal process of getting approval from the state Personnel Board could lead to politically-oriented firings, or enable Republicans to cut agency budgets deeply, making leaders fire employees to conserve funds. Republicans have said they think agency heads could manage more efficiently with the power to fire freely.

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