Whether you deplore the way the Mississippi Legislature currently operates or you rejoice in its works, change is needed. The status quo makes no sense.
Longtime North Mississippi legislator Hob Bryan set the stage by calling on his Senate colleagues to take back power from the lieutenant governor.
It’s no secret that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and his counterpart in the House, Speaker Philip Gunn, decide what legislation lives and which projects get funded. As Bryan noted, their extraordinary power does not come from the state constitution. Rather, it is gifted to them by all legislators through the Senate and House rules.
Ironically, Reeves and Gunn often exercise this power with little regard for, much less input from, most legislators. For example, the addition of $2 million for private school vouchers was slipped into an unrelated bill at the last minute leaving most legislators in the dark about it. Reeves wanted it added. Gunn rammed it through the House. Done deal.
It is also no secret that much of the legislation championed by these two originates from outside the Mississippi Legislature, often from outside the state.
“Each year, state lawmakers across the U.S. introduce thousands of bills dreamed up and written by corporations, industry groups and think tanks,” reported USA Today. "In all, these copycat bills amount to the nation’s largest, unreported special-interest campaign, driving agendas in every statehouse and touching nearly every area of public policy."
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The number one state where this happens? Mississippi.
“Mississippi leads nation in filing legislation that other people wrote,” reported the Clarion-Ledger. “Between 2010 and 2018, Mississippi legislators introduced at least 744 model bills, USA Today found. That’s 200 more model bills than the next highest state.”
The newspaper also reported Sen. Michael Watson, a candidate for Secretary of State, was a top sponsor of model bills in the country.
Among the special interests involved are the infamous Koch brothers and their network of big givers and think tanks. For example, the school voucher program and its state sponsor, Empower Mississippi, and its progenitor, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, have strong policy and financial links to the Koch network. (PS: Empower Mississippi PAC was able to give Reeves’ campaign $10,000.)
If so many bills come from outsiders, not from our own legislators, and the lieutenant governor and speaker decide what passes, why do we need 174 legislators? Alaska gets by with 60; Nebraska 49.
Reducing the number of legislators to less than 50 would save millions, shorten sessions, shrink government, and still yield us the same results we get now.
So, if you like current results, a smart change would be to shrink the legislature.
On the other hand, if you don’t like current results, Sen. Bryan’s suggestion to greatly curtail the power given to the lieutenant governor and the speaker makes sense. That would restore the traditional legislative process where members debate and decide on what bills to pass and which projects to fund. And the process would once again rely more on member input than outside special interests.
So, if you don't like current results, a smart change would be to limit the lieutenant governor's and speaker's power.
Either lots fewer non-essential legislators or a fully functioning legislature makes sense, but not the status quo.
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.