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Bryant preps for legislative battles

Phil Bryant is lacing up his gloves for the title match.

The Mississippi lieutenant governor is in for a fight in Januarywhen the 2011 legislative session begins, where the Republican willbe sparring with the Democratic leaders of the House over the twobiggest issues on the agenda – redistricting and the fiscal year2012 budget. His ideas for working on both issues are likely tomeet resistance from across the way, but Bryant told a jointmeeting of the Brookhaven Lions and Kiwanis clubs Tuesday he’sready to take on his political opponents.

“The House leadership is mad at me,” he said. “Each house drawsup its own plan (for redistricting), and we used to have agentlemen’s agreement and we’d say we’ll automatically adopt theother’s plan. But I said no.”

Bryant pledged next year’s decennial redistricting will not bethe each-house-for-itself affair it has been in the past, promisingthe Senate will review the House bill that creates new legislativedistricts and study the maps before taking a vote. His plan iscausing consternation in the House, where the leadership wants itsredistricting plan left alone and promises not to meddle in theSenate’s plan.

The future composition of the state’s legislative branch is onthe line, with new legislative districts having the potential toseparate established politicians from their voting bases or dilutethose strongholds with new voters.

The House is solidly Democratic, while the Democratic-majoritySenate leans Republican and has backed Gov. Haley Barbour on someimportant issues.

The House side of the Standing Joint Legislative Committee onReapportionment is composed of nine members – eight Democrats andone Republican. The Senate side of the committee has 10 members,five each from both parties.

If both chambers of the Legislature challenge each other’sredistricting plans without resolution, the matter will likely headto federal courts for a decision. Bryant is prepared for thatoption.

“The oath of office says I will not trade my vote for anotherbill,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to violate my oath of office andI’m not going to ask the members of the Mississippi Senate toviolate their oaths of office.”

If the redistricting battle isn’t enough for Bryant, he’s alsoready to challenge the old ways of state government by pushing fora performance-based budget, which would award funding to stateagencies based on those agencies’ success in their fields.

Bryant said powerful lawmakers use their clout to politicallymanipulate the budget under the current system, doling out bigappropriations to favorite agencies without regard to an agency’sperformance.

“If something doesn’t work, quit funding it,” Bryant said.

Bryant and his team tried to implement performance-basedbudgeting last year. The Senate passed Senate Bill 2816, whichwould have created the Mississippi Strategic Planning andPerformance Budgeting System, by a vote of 48-1 in 2010. The billwas transmitted to the House, where it died on deadline in Rep.Johnny Stringer’s House Appropriations Committee without beingvoted on.

“The chairman wouldn’t bring it up,” Bryant said. “I know whatI’m doing – I’m trying to take some power away from theLegislature. It’s a battle.”

The state budget for fiscal year 2012 will come to around $5.4billion, only 1 percent less than the 2011 spending plan, Bryantsaid.

“The idea the government is going to collapse and services willgo away is just not factual,” he said.

Cuts to the budget should be made by reducing travel, cuttingback on technology purchases and refusing to fund unoccupiedpositions in state agencies, Bryant said. He proposed using $88million from the Rainy Day fund, which would leave approximately$85 million for the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Bryant shared his views on a few other issues facing Mississippinow and next year, including his personal lawsuit against thePatient Protection and Affordable Care Act – Phil Bryant vs. (U.S.Attorney General) Eric Holder, Jr.

“I think we’re going to win that,” he said. “I believe it’s aviolation of my 10th Amendment rights.”

The new health care laws will allow an additional 400,000Mississippians to qualify for Medicaid, Bryant said. With the600,000 already on Medicaid rolls, that would be 1 millionMississippians who can use the program, one of the state’s mostcostly budget items.

“That’s 1 millions people in Mississippi out of 2.8 million,” hesaid. “We can’t sustain that. It will collapse this economy.”

The lieutenant governor also voiced his support for legislationthat would tighten the use of eminent domain and proposedskill-teaching programs for Mississippi high schools.