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Power shift marks beginning of 2012 state Legislature

As 2012 begins, state government standspoised for its biggest power shift in more than a century.

      With a Republican-majority Houseand Senate convening Jan. 3, the entire Mississippi legislativebranch will finally join the executive branch as a GOP stronghold.The last time that occurred was 1877.

    Having a Republican in the governor’s office will be business asusual, of course, but come inauguration day on Jan. 10, two-termGov. Haley Barbour’s big shoes will be replaced by new Gov. PhilBryant’s cowboy boots.

    Joining Bryant and GOP Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who oversees theSenate, will likely be Rep. Phillip Gunn, R-Clinton, as Speaker ofthe House. The Gunn era will follow years of Democratic speakers’tight-fisted control over committee appointments and bill traffic.It remains to be seen whether Gunn will take a more non-partisanapproach, but we can hope.    

     By the way, Reeves’slocal connection through his Bogue Chitto grandparents is a plusfor our area.

    Closer to home, our own area legislative delegation will containone new face and three familiar ones – new Sen. Sally Doty, servingDistrict 39, and returning District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, bothRepublicans, along with returning District 91 Rep. Bob Evans andDistrict 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, both Democrats. Moak had been aleading contender for the Speaker’s post before the Republicans wonthe House.

    As the new legislative session gets under way, our locallegislators and their counterparts from across the state will havemore than a few big issues to wrestle.

    Although some glimmers of improvement are flickering to thesurface, four years of recession have left their toll, and budgetcutting will once again be a high priority. Outgoing Gov. Barbourhas proposed a 2.9 percent budget cut, while the Joint LegislativeBudget Committee favors a slightly more modest 2.3 percentreduction.

    Just where the ax will fall is yet to be seen, but most are sayingthat K-12 education and community colleges probably will avoidsignificant funding reductions. The legislative budget proposaldoes call for a 1.93 percent cut in university funding,however.

    Among the other areas eyed for cuts or spending freezes are thePublic Employees Retirement System, Medicaid, the Department ofHealth, the Arts Commission, Public Broadcasting and the LibraryCommission.

    Barbour also has proposed tempering budget cuts by spending theremainder of the state’s health care trust fund. The fund, whichstill amounts to about $97.4 million, was set up from the millionsthe state received from tobacco companies in a 1997 lawsuitsettlement.

    The state has been withdrawing money from the trust fund for years,although the original intent was to maintain the principal and onlyspend the interest.

    One thing’s for sure, once the trust fund dollars are all spent,they’re gone, so the better approach would be for the Legislatureto come up with ways to reduce state spending enough to balance thebudget. We can’t guarantee the recession will finally end thisyear, and, like a family who’s managing its household in hardtimes, the state is better off not emptying its savings account ifit can help it.