In sharp contrast to last year’s filibustering, race-fueled accusations and a lawsuit, Republican and Democratic House leaders have been working to peacefully reach across the aisle in the early days of the 2017 session.
And both sides say they feel good about the effort so far.
“So far, so good,” House Democratic leader David Baria said at a Stennis Institute luncheon on Monday.
“We are continuing to look for common ground,” House Speaker Philip Gunn said in a statement later in the afternoon.
Last session – the first session controlled by a Republican supermajority (giving Republicans the votes to pass bills regardless of Democratic votes) – several House Democrats and Republicans butted heads, spurring nasty rhetoric, legislative tactics aimed at delaying action and a lawsuit trying to stop the speaker from using machines to read bills instead of clerks.
So far this year, Gunn, R-Clinton, and Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, have agreed to work together more closely on issues that spring up during the regular course of the session.
Gunn committed to and has fulfilled weekly meetings with Baria, and the House Democratic caucus was given a full-time staff member, Baria noted.
“I’m happy to say Speaker Gunn reached out to me … and said, ‘I want you to know we want to be open. Anytime you have a problem, reach out to us,’” Baria said at the press club luncheon.
“There will come a time when we’re in a floor fight. And that’s OK,” Baria said.
Baria also said Gunn’s chief of staff Nathan Wells has reached out after several arguments in the years since Baria has been in the House, and that the two “agreed to bury the hatchet and try to work together.”
The speaker laid out his commitment to bipartisan compromise on the first day of the 2017 session, and he reaffirmed it in his statement on Monday, noting, “I believe that we agree on more things than we disagree on.”
So far this session, business between House leaders has been peaceful.
Baria on Monday pointed to last week’s House vote against a bill that would have limited the attorney general’s power to pursue lawsuits resulting in legal awards over $250,000.
The bill failed in a surprisingly close 58-60 vote Wednesday afternoon. Twelve Republicans voted against the bill, while three others did not vote.
After several audible boos came from the House floor following the vote, Gunn admonished the members, saying, “We’re not going to do that.”
“That vote is an excellent way to underscore how we can work across the aisle with one another and we can build coalitions that can govern,” Baria said.
The clashes last session were intense at times, providing loud debates on the floor and screaming matches behind closed doors.
After House Democrats in February requested bills be read aloud to slow the legislative process, House Republicans voted to eliminate points of personal privilege, or time set aside for lawmakers to question leaders about how they conduct legislative business. Without the points of personal privilege, several bills were passed by the House without debate.
Leaders from both parties met privately and developed a compromise that included restoring points of personal privilege for legislators.
Another compromise, Baria said at the time, was Gunn’s promise to kill the bill shifting control of the Jackson airport from city officials to the state. That bill was ultimately passed, sending Democrats into another round of battle with Republicans.
When Democrats again requested bills be read aloud, Gunn directed clerks to use computer bill readers and speed up the machines to an incomprehensible 10-15 words per second.
After a number of House Democrats argued that the speed of the machine was too fast, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, filed for and was granted an emergency temporary restraining order against Gunn, which forced Gunn to slow the automated readings to a normal speed.
That case has not been resolved and is still pending in the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The hard feelings carried over into the June special session, as Baria likened Mississippi Republicans to a politburo, the principal policy making arm of the Communist Party when it ruled Russia. That same week, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called the Republican-controlled Legislature “a dictatorship.”
So far this session, such rhetoric has not been heard.
“If we can maintain a level of common decency and communication, I think that would be a vast improvement,” Baria said. “So far, so good.”