2016 Legislature: GOP prophecy comes true

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Mississippi State Capitol

Weeks before the consequential November 2015 election that led to the first Republican supermajority in the Legislature, House Speaker Philip Gunn prophesized what the actions of such a body might look like.

No other party would shape the direction of the state, the Republican leader said at the Neshoba County Fair in July 2015.

No other party would help make policy decisions.

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

Mississippi Today

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

No other party would hold leadership roles under the dome.

Seemingly, no other party would exist.

“We pull out the roster of our team, and we pick leaders off that list,” Gunn said. “Your man, because he’s a Democrat, is not on that list.”

With the first regular session with a Republican supermajority in place, many, including Gunn himself, would say that the speaker’s prophecy came to fruition.

Democratic lawmakers passed 24 of the 647 bills (3.7 percent) they authored in the House, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of legislation introduced and passed this session. In the Senate, just 20 of 299 (6.7 percent) Democrat-written bills passed.

In all, just 4.7 percent of bills authored by Democratic lawmakers made it to Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk. In contrast, 18.3 percent of Republican-written bills in the legislature passed this year.

Democrats were able to kill a proposed tax cut in 2015. But with Republicans holding a supermajority (more than three-fifths of the votes) needed to pass finance bills, a $415 million tax cut bill narrowly passed both houses this session.

Similarly, a bill to distribute $250 million in state bonds, which many Democrats adamantly opposed, passed both houses this session.

Conservative-favored causes like the religious freedom and guns in churches laws were proudly signed by Gov. Phil Bryant after the supermajority swept them through the respective chambers.

“The largest tax cut in the history of Mississippi is certainly a piece of legislation that will

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

be looked at for years and years to come,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said after the session ended. “While I appreciate what the (Republican) party may think, what we’re trying to do is what’s best for all Mississippians. Expanding the majority in the House certainly led to passing that (tax cuts) bill and others.”

Though Democratic lawmakers had little-to-no influence in the legislature this term, there were times in which their voices were heard.

Aiming to slow the legislative process, House Democrats twice requested that bills be read in their entirety. There was filibustering. There were racially-fueled accusations. Gunn even had to clear a legal hurdle – a temporary restraining order filed by Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford – to restore order to an often raucous House floor.

The vast majority of bills were voted straight down partisan lines, which was evident on a daily basis because Gunn split the House electronic vote board by party.

Looking back on the session, Democrats are dismayed at what they experienced the past four months.

“We can disagree on policies,” Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis and House minority leader, said in a press conference the day before the session adjourned. “What we must agree on is that Mississippians who elected us want us to work together to solve Mississippi’s big problems. Unfortunately, our leadership would not allow us to work cooperatively to address these problems in this session.”

Many Democratic lawmakers had few or no bills passed this session. Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, went 1-for-81 on bills in which she was the principal author. Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, went 0-for-63. Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, went 0-for-33.

Thirty-one of the 48 Democratic representatives had none of their authored bills passed, while nine of the 20 Democratic senators had none of their authored bills passed.

Rep. Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond, went 1-for-66 on bills in which she authored. She said House committee chairmen, hand-selected by Gunn in January, would not return calls.

“The only way to get in touch with anyone was to go through Speaker Gunn himself or (Gunn’s Chief of Staff Nathan Wells),” Dixon said. “Seems like they were trying to destroy communication. Anything you went to them with, they wouldn’t talk at all.”

The numbers, while dismal for Democrats in the legislature, were not much worse than 2015, before the Republican supermajority was earned. That year, House Dems passed 26 of the 763 bills (3.4 percent) they authored, and 36 of the 55 Democratic representatives had none of their authored bills passed. Senate Democrats passed 22 of the 282 bills (7.8 percent) they authored that same year.

But Gunn, in an interview with reporters the day the House adjourned for the spring, said he was pleased with the work of the House this year. Mirroring the same maxims he preached at the Fair last year, Gunn touted his conservative principles and continued to amplify the efforts of his Republican colleagues.

“I’m not going to apologize for being a Republican,” Gunn said. “Trimming government, reducing taxes—these are thing that we campaigned for.”