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Reorganizing the Legislature

By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
May 5, 2002
Jim Herring has a plan one that undoubtedly is of interest to anyone who follows Mississippi state government and the Legislature.
The chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party is eying next year's legislative elections, hoping to increase the number of GOP members in the state House and Senate.
Then, if successful, he wants to see both chambers organize along party lines much like the U.S. Congress with the dominant party controlling all leadership positions.
For example, Democrats today would control every major post in the state House and Senate because the Democratic Party holds the majority of seats in both bodies.
Republicans, the minority party in the state Legislature, wouldn't be able to hold committee chairmanships or serve as House speaker of Senate vice president.
The theory, Herring said, is that Mississippians would experience a full debate on important issues by hearing both the Democratic and Republican sides.
The danger, though, is that Republicans risk being left out of the mix rendered ineffective by Democratic leaders currently uninterested in organizing along party lines.
Let's look, for a minute, at the Mississippi Legislature.
The House has 122 members: 86 Democrats, 33 Republicans and three independents. The Senate has 52 members: 34 Democrats and 18 Republicans.
Tim Ford, a Democrat from Baldwyn, manages the House as speaker. Amy Tuck, the Democratic lieutenant governor, manages the Senate as its president.
Ford and Tuck appoint House and Senate committee chairmen. They, in turn, control the fate of proposals lawmakers sponsor deciding whether or not they will be debated.
Even though Ford and Tuck are Democrats, they still have placed high-profile Republicans in top leadership posts in the House and Senate giving the GOP a strong presence.
Republicans chair the Insurance, Public Health and Environmental Protection committees in the Senate. They also chair the Conservation, Municipalities and Fees and Salaries committees in the House.
Republicans admittedly don't control the Senate and House budget-writing and tax-writing committees. But the Democrats who do control those panels have had years of legislative experience.
Any talk of organizing the House and Senate along party lines likely would anger Democrats in charge, especially since they believe they've gone out of their way to be inclusive.
The result: Democrats could ignore the Republicans, give them measly assignments and relegate them to the back row.
That almost happened in the early 1990s when Kirk Fordice became the first GOP governor since Reconstruction and began trying to polarize Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.
Democrats considered organizing the House and Senate on party lines. But after weeks of behind-the-scene talks, they backed off mainly because of what they had seen in Congress.
Legislative leaders didn't want to see Mississippi become a place of gridlock, a Capitol divided by extremes. They wanted to keep an organization in place that had worked so well for so many years.
Now, though, Mississippi Democrats could feel they are being pushed against the proverbial wall if top Republicans begin actively touting reorganization.
And if the Democrats reorganized, they could do what they almost did in the early 1990s shut the Republicans out.
But Herring said he believes reorganization is the only way to have a full debate of issues instead of a turf battle between the legislative and executive branches.
If the Democrats try to shut-out Republicans, he said, that's fine.

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