Gunn, Reeves tout religious freedom bill, tax cuts

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Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, discusses the highlights of the 2016 legislative session.

Mississippi Today

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, discusses the 2016 legislative session.

Leaders of the House and Senate on Thursday praised passage of a religious freedom law, changes to Mississippi’s education system and a tax-cut bill still awaiting action by Gov. Phil Bryant.

The House concluded its business Thursday morning following a procedural delay founded in a protest by Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, to a school-district consolidation in his legislative district which he said his constituents oppose and he was not consulted on.

The Senate concluded its work for the regular session on Wednesday.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he is proudest of passing bills to expand charter schools, increasing the rigor of the 3rd grade reading test, requiring appointed superintendents and the religious-objections legislation.

“Last summer, when the United States Supreme Court came out with their gay marriage decision, right then I could tell there was going to be a collision between religious liberties and gay rights. This bill is nothing more than an attempt to balance those interests,” Gunn told reporters in his office Thursday morning after the House adjourned.

Speaking to perhaps the most controversial bill of the session, the religious freedom law, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves expressed continued support, saying he would pass it again through the Legislature despite the backlash from other states, celebrities and politicians.

Reeves said he is proudest of the legislature’s passing of “a comprehensive tax reform” package, one of his personal legislative objectives. Reeves said the tax cut happened because of the existence of the Republican supermajority in both chambers.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, R-Florence

“Expanding the majorities in the houses led to the ability to pass (the tax cut bill),” Reeves said. “That bill failed last year, and it probably wouldn’t have happened without the expanding of the majorities.”

Gov. Phil Bryant, after announcing additional mid-year budget cuts on Wednesday, said he is still unsure whether he’ll sign the tax cut.

Gunn also celebrated the passage of a tax-cut plan, while also noting the Legislature approved a bond bill for capital projects around the state and the renewal of funding for historic tax credits.

Reeves also boasted of the Legislature’s passing of three bills that “will reform public education in Mississippi for years to come”: a bill mandating that school district superintendents be appointed rather than elected, a bill that extends charter school enrollment opportunities to children in broader categories of public school districts, and additional school district consolidations.

Gunn said his disappointments include the failure to get a vote on changing the Mississippi state flag, which came under renewed scrutiny for the Confederate battle emblem it bears. Last year Gunn said he favored a change.

“It takes 62 votes to get anything done around here,” Gunn said. “I am for whatever options we can do to change the flag, including legislative action.”

A number of bills in both the House and Senate died in committee without members having to cast an up or down vote. Gunn also said he was surprised that a campaign-finance reform bill he personally helped write met defeat on the House floor with an unrecorded voice vote.

Reeves chalked up the death of the election reform bill, which would also have limited how politicians spend campaign finances, and the death of the Capitol Complex bill for Jackson to the general difficulties of being a legislator.

“Legislating is hard, and it’s all about compromise,” Reeves said. “You have to compromise amongst political parties, the House and the Senate. At the end of the day, to pass legislation takes getting the votes to pass it.”

Of the contentious session, freshman Rep. Jarvis Dortch, D-Raymond, said he believed partisanship at times prevented members from hashing out solutions to issues on which members agreed.

“If we just sit down and actually talk about some of the things we agree on instead of having this bitter partisan fights dictate how things go up here, it could be so much better,” Dortch said.

The morning was marked by a surprise visit to the House by La’Porsha Renae, a finalist on American Idol from McComb, who delivered a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

House members also honored Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee but is retiring to head up the Mississippi Department of Revenue. Frierson, serving as honorary speaker, gaveled the House adjourned for the year.