In a recent column in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion Ledger (July 21, 2010) ("Will Legislature reassert dominance after Barbour era?"), longtime journalist Sid Salter addressed an interesting and relevant issue that has not previously been discussed publicly this year in Mississippi, although it has without doubt been discussed privately among potential candidates and others. While many of Mississippi's political pundits are focusing on the upcoming "beauty contest" (the Mississippi Governor's race), the role of the tea parties in the upcoming Congressional elections, or whether or not Haley Barbour will pull the trigger and run for President, I believe that Sid has put his finger on the single-most important issue facing Mississippians in the Magnolia State's 2011 statewide elections. How that issue is decided will shape the philosophical direction that Mississippi will take in the next four to eight years on the great issues of the day - Medicaid and Medicare; funding for public education; eminent domain and the role of government in economic development; taxation; crime; and generally the role of government in our everyday lives.
Sid is correct when he says that "[h]istorically, the Legislature has operated as the strong dominant policy maker in state government and the governor served in a more ceremonial and opinion-making role." This was certainly true in the twentieth century when virtually every Governor that held office, along with many scholars and others, proclaimed that the power of the Governor's office should be strengthened. In fact, some of Mississippi's most distinguished scholars and leaders during those years called for a constitutional convention in Mississippi with the express goal of doing away with certain elective offices and making them subject to gubernatorial appointment. In short, the Governor and the executive branch of state government appeared to be totally over-matched by the powerful legislative branch, which held the purse strings to the coffers housing taxpayers' dollars. Year after year, regardless of who held the Governor's office, the legislative branch was dominant, and its leadership was unified.
This political reality slowly began to change, however, with the coming of the two-party system in Mississippi. As more and more Republicans were elected to the state Legislature, the opportunity for conservatives to gather together and to support common goals increased. The real legislative shift, however, has taken place in the twenty-first century. In 2001, there were 86 Democrats in the Mississippi House of Representatives, 33 Republicans and 3 Independents; while in the State Senate, there were 34 Democrats and 18 Republicans. Today, the House still has 72 who call themselves Democrats but there are also 50 Republicans, who have formally organized themselves, adopted by-laws, and elected a floor leader, a conference chairman, and other officers in a manner similar to the structure of the Republican Conference in the Congressional House of Representatives. There is a real chance that there will be enough Republicans in 2011 to elect a GOP Speaker of the House.
In the State Senate, where Republican Lieutenant Phil Bryant presides, there are currently 27 Democrats, but there are also 25 Republicans. During the Barbour Administration years, Republicans have controlled the Senate with the help of a few conservative Democrats.
During the eight years of the Barbour Administration, Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature have basically agreed on most issues and maintained party discipline. In so doing, they greatly enhanced the power of the Governor. Whereas Governors were confronted in past years by a united legislative branch intent on holding tightly to the reins of state government and minimizing the power of the Governor's office, battles in state government suddenly shifted after 2001 to more healthy ideological battles between political parties on pocket book issues rather than endless fights between the Legislature and the Governor over which of the two branches of government would dominate the political landscape.
Since 2001, the elected leaders of both political parties have had healthy and constructive debates on public issues such as taxes, education, and health care; and the people have been better off for it. As a result, our citizens have been better informed and have not been distracted by side issues that have held the state back for generations. In essence, the emergence of a healthy two-party system in Mississippi has silenced any discussion of a need for a constitutional convention to enhance the power of the Governor or the executive branch.
The question has been raised as to whether a Republican Governor elected in 2011 could maintain party discipline among the Republican legislators in the years ahead. In his column, Sid asks a good question: "Does Mississippi want a strong governor like Barbour -- or a more traditional governor like former Governors Ray Mabus or Bill Waller, Sr.?" A second question might be whether the people want to continue to have a healthy two-party system in the Legislature, which will surely result in a strong support group in the legislative branch for whoever is elected Governor. The answer to these questions will determine the direction Mississippi will take in 2011 and beyond. One would think that Republicans have the advantage in 2011 - unless they get over-confident and begin fighting among themselves
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