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House speaker bringing policy proposals later

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn has a broad idea about what he wants lawmakers to consider in 2020. However, he says he’s waiting to see specific proposals about teacher pay raises, roads and bridges, health care and other issues.

“We’re going to continue to look at infrastructure, continue to look at the budget, continue to look at education — the things that are important,” Gunn said after a legislative budget meeting in December. “Job creation is probably number one that is most critical to the entire prosperity of the state.”

Gunn recently sponsored a forum to discuss why people are moving out of Mississippi to pursue their careers. He said he wasn’t sure whether he will offer legislation to try to curb the brain drain problem.

The first legislative session of the four-year term begins Jan. 7, and one of the first orders of business will be for the House to elect its leaders.

Gunn is a Republican from Clinton who has served eight years as speaker, the presiding officer of the 122-member House. He has enough pledges of support to win another term as speaker, so the vote on opening day should happen without drama.

Gunn will have a new counterpart on the other end of the Capitol when Republican Delbert Hosemann, the current secretary of state, becomes lieutenant governor after winning a statewide election in November. Hosemann will preside over the 52-member Senate. He and Gunn will alternate years as chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Hosemann and most other statewide elected officials take office Jan. 9, and the current lieutenant governor, Republican Tate Reeves, will be inaugurated as governor Jan. 14.

Hosemann has already said he intends to announce senators’ committee assignments Jan. 10.

Gunn said he wants to announce House committee assignments early in the session, but he’s not committing to a date. If he takes longer than Hosemann, it’s with good reason: Gunn’s task is more complex because he has more than twice as many people to try to make happy.

Both Gunn and Hosemann have been communicating with legislators about their policy interests. Both say they are keeping those in mind as they set committee assignments. If someone’s eyes glaze over at the mere mention of farming, for example, there’s no point in putting that person on the Agriculture Committee.

With their party controlling both chambers, Republicans will receive the most coveted assignments. Committees are the first clearinghouse for bills, deciding which ones survive and which die quietly with little or no debate.

One issue that has died with little discussion the past few years is expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance for the needy, paid by federal and state dollars. Under the health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, states have the option of extending coverage to the working poor. Mississippi is among the 14 states that have not done so.

“I am not in favor of expansion in the traditional sense of what they mean by it,” Gunn said. “A lot of people say ‘Medicaid reform.’ I don’t know what they mean by reform, but I’m willing to listen.”

The main group talking about “reform” rather than “expansion” is the Mississippi Hospital Association, which unveiled its Mississippi Cares proposal in 2019. It envisions that low-income people who become Medicaid recipients would pay something for their coverage, and hospitals would also pay into the program to cover other costs.

Even if that type of Medicaid change were to win legislative approval, it would likely hit a brick wall with the new governor. Reeves has said repeatedly that he does not want more people on Medicaid.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.