New leaders set course for state Legislature

Published 5:22 pm Monday, December 9, 2019

Mississippi lawmakers begin their new term Jan. 7, with Republicans maintaining large majorities in the House and Senate. Some leadership jobs will change hands, including chairmanships of important committees.

Republican Philip Gunn of Clinton has enough support among current and incoming representatives to gain a third term as speaker of the House. One of his longtime allies, Republican Rep. Jason White of West, is in line to become the new speaker pro tempore — the second-highest job in the 122-member House.

White will succeed Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian, who has been pro tem two terms and was defeated in the Republican primary in August.

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The 52-member Senate will have a new leader with Republican Delbert Hosemann as lieutenant governor. Hosemann has served three terms as secretary of state, and he succeeds two-term Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who will become governor.

The Senate is also getting a new pro tem, and that is expected to be Republican Sen. Dean Kirby of Pearl. He will succeed Republican Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, who was pro tem during the 2019 session and did not seek another term in the Legislature.

Since winning the election Nov. 5, Hosemann has been holding one-on-one meetings with returning and incoming senators to discuss their policy interests.

Gunn and Hosemann will name committee leaders within the first few weeks of the session, and those appointments are vital in setting the tone for the four-year term.

Committees are the first clearinghouse for legislative proposals, and chairman have considerable leeway in deciding which bills are worthy of consideration and which ones die quietly without debate.

Some committee chairmen were defeated during the 2019 elections, and some chose not to run again.

Two high-profile House committees getting new leaders are Ways and Means, which considers taxes and bond projects; and Judiciary A, which handles many of the criminal justice proposals.

Republican Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus has been Ways and Means chairman; he was defeated in the party primary. Republican Rep. Mark Baker of Columbus has led Jud A; he ran unsuccessfully for attorney general.

The House Universities and Colleges Committee chairman, Republican Rep. Nolan Mettetal, did not run for another term in the Legislature. The House Elections Committee chairman, Republican Bill Denny of Jackson, was defeated by a Democrat in the general election.

Among the high-profile Senate committees  getting new leaders in the new term are Appropriations, which handles the state budget; Highways and Transportation, which deals with roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure; and Education, which handles legislation for elementary and secondary schools.

The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Republican Buck Clarke of Hollandale, ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer. The Transportation Committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Willie Simmons of Cleveland, was elected as the new central district transportation commissioner. Tollison has been chairman of the Education Committee.

Kirby has been chairman of the Senate Public Health Committee and is unlikely to keep that chairmanship once he becomes Senate president pro tem.

Republicans have held most of the committee chairmanships under Gunn and Reeves — a result of the party holding strong majorities in both chambers.

About 38 percent of Mississippi residents are African American, and all but one of the black lawmakers are Democrats. Amid the partisan split at the Capitol, few black lawmakers have held high-profile chairmanships in recent years. Exceptions are Simmons in the Senate and Rep. Angela Cockerham, who has been chairwoman of the House Judiciary B Committee. Cockerham was previously a Democrat but was elected this year as an independent.

Women comprise nearly 51 percent of Mississippi’s population but only about 14 percent of the Mississippi Legislature. So far, no woman has held the chairmanship of the four money committees — House and Senate Appropriations; House Ways and Means; and Senate Finance.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.