Leadership team will shape lawmaking process

Published 6:15 pm Monday, January 27, 2020

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn has completed one of his most consequential tasks of the four-year legislative term — choosing House committee members and leaders.

The assignments were announced Thursday. They are crucial because committees get the first shot at deciding which policy proposals live or die. A chairman can quietly kill a bill by deciding not to bring it up for debate.

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced committee assignments for the 52-member Senate on Jan. 10, during the first week of the legislative session.

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Gunn took nearly two weeks longer, but he had a more complicated job. The House has 122 members, and Gunn asked each of his 121 colleagues to fill out a form showing which committees they would like to join and to rank those choices in order of preference. He said he would try to give people some of their top choices, to the extent possible.

Gunn is a Republican from Clinton, and he’s in his third term as House speaker. Republicans hold more than 60 percent of House seats, and Gunn again put Republicans in most of the top committee jobs.

He kept some people in the same chairmanships they had last term and switched others.

Republican Rep. John Read of Gautier remains chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Gunn chose one of his other longtime allies, Republican Rep. Trey Lamar, as the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes and borrowing.

The previous Ways and Means leader, Republican Jeff Smith of Columbus, was defeated in the GOP primary in August.

Another key chairmanship opened up when Republican Mark Baker of Brandon ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2019 rather than seeking reelection to the House. Baker had been chairman of the Judiciary A Committee.

Gunn on Thursday named Rep. Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia, as the new chairwoman of Judiciary A.

Last term, Cockerham led the Judiciary B Committee. Gunn on Thursday named Republican Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth as the new Jud B chairman.

In previous years, Jud A handled civil justice legislation and Jud B handled criminal justice matters.

Cockerham and Bain are both former Democrats. Bain switched party labels in March. Cockerham had worked across party lines for years, and she won reelection to the House in 2019 as an independent.

Last term, Cockerham was the only woman from the House and Republican Sen. Sally Doty of Brookhaven was the only woman from the Senate to serve on the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee. They will also be the only women on that committee this term.

The Budget Committee makes the first recommendations for how state tax dollars should be spent each year.

A woman has never been chairman of the four other money committees in the Mississippi Legislature — House Appropriations, Senate Appropriations, House Ways and Means, and Senate Finance.

This term, Doty is vice chair of Senate Finance. She is the only woman to hold one of the two leadership positions on any money committee this term.

Although the leadership jobs on the money committees usually go to longtime lawmakers, Gunn chose Republican Rep. Karl Oliver as vice chairman of House Appropriations.

Oliver is starting his second term in the Legislature, and he made national headlines in 2017 when he wrote on Facebook that people who take down Confederate monuments should be “lynched.” Oliver apologized after his remarks drew broad condemnation. Members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus called on him to resign. He stayed in office, and in his second term he received a plum assignment in shaping how state tax dollars will be spent.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.