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Sen. Sally Doty studying bill that would give governor more power

Senate Bill 2567, which was passed this past week by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would allow Gov. Phil Bryant to appoint the directors of the departments of health, mental health and rehabilitation services.

The bill now awaits debate before the Senate, and Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, is doing her homework.

“I’m still gathering information on this bill,” said Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven. “While several state agencies already have executive directors that are appointed by the governor, others work through boards with members appointed in various ways. A cabinet-style administration like this bill proposes is certainly a big step.”

Doty doesn’t expect Senate Bill 2567 to come up for another week or so. “I’ll be talking with various groups until then to get more information and make my decision,” she said.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale.

All three departments are currently run by boards appointed by the governor, which act as a go-between with Bryant on one side and the department heads on the other. By giving the governor the ability to appoint the directors, he will be able to choose people who will follow his directives.

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.

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.

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.

He also proposed that the state Forestry Commission, the Board of Animal Health and county livestock operations fall under the Agriculture Department, and the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission fall under the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. All three proposals failed.

Bryant has called 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.”

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

Doty was busy this past week with a few other bills, including the Blue Lives Matters Bill, which was a big statement of support for law enforcement. “This is the only bill we took up on the floor in the Senate,” she said. “With committee deadline so tight, we aren’t doing any floor work on the Senate. The Blue Lives Bill is only the second bill to be taken up on the floor.”

Criminal offenders who harm a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical worker would face stiff punishments under legislation passed by the Senate Thursday.

Senate Bill 2469, by Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln, and Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, passed in a 37-13 vote. The bill, called the “Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Act,” heads to the House for consideration.

“Mississippians have great respect for our men and women who risk their lives on the job every day,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said. “Officers, firefighters and medical workers often face unknown dangers on the job. Anyone who commits a crime against these brave individuals should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

The bill allows prosecutors to seek more prison time or other punishments for any individual who harms a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical worker due to their employment as a first responder. If passed by the House, the bill would take effect July 1.

Doty said discussion on the floor did not go smoothly.

“Several Democrats were opposed to the ‘Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter Bill’ and we had very heated debate that lasted over two hours,” she said.

The Brookhaven senator has also been busy with campaign finance and election bills. “I chair elections (committee) and had my committee meeting this week.   (Lincoln County Circuit Clerk) Dustin Bairfield and I have worked together on a bill to allow in-person absentees who vote at the courthouse to vote on machine.”

She said machine voting would be less costly. “And we both think it will prevent technical errors,” she said. “I even made a last-minute request for Dustin to come to my committee meeting on Wednesday to answer any technical questions.  My elections committee has many of the most senior and powerful members in the Senate, so I have to be extra prepared.”

The 90-day legislative session will end April 2.

“We have approximately 3,000 bills filed and usually about 10 percent make it into law, so it is still early in the process,” she said.