Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale Credit: Gil Ford Photography

The governor could soon control two of the largest agencies in the state.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the “Health Agency Reorganization Act of 2017,” which would place the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation under the governor’s supervision. In the end, the committee voted 12-8 in favor of the legislation, with four senators voting present.

One major change under the bill is that Gov. Phil Bryant would be able to replace the executive director of each of these departments with his own appointee. Currently, each agency’s board makes these appointments.

In his presentation, Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, hammered home that the legislation is about restructuring not saving money.

“There’s no dollars here,” Clarke said. “… (It’s about) accountability and a little more cohesion in the executive branch here. Being able to (work) more within the health industry, being able to share electronic records and share data. There may be some of those benefits down the road.”

Adam Moore, director of communications for the Department of Mental Health, said the department was uneasy about how the restructuring could affect the agency’s services.

“We have heard some concerns from both advocates and families who have received services, and our board also has some concerns about the bill,” Moore said.

The Department of Rehabilitation Services did not comment by press time; Mississippi today interviewed Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state health board after this story was published for a separate article.

Despite saying that the bill is not about savings, when asked what he would change about how these agencies are run, Clarke said: “I think at every level you can probably save the state money. We always talk about back office positions, like even accounting type stuff.”

The bill would exempt employees of these agencies from State Personnel Board regulations.

“Whenever it’s been brought up for removing the personnel from the Personnel Board, it’s assumed there will be a cost savings, just by moving people around or reduction of workforce,” Clarke said.

But doing so could potentially make the positions easier to eliminate, a sticking point for several senators who ultimately voted no, Clarke later acknowledged.

But some senators worry that the change could shift the balance of power in the state, giving the governor unprecedented control.

“The purpose of the agencies being run by boards is to minimize political influence, and by and large we’ve struck a good balance between agencies that are directly accountable to the governor and agencies that are answerable to boards,” Blount said. “For the agencies that are run by boards, the purpose of boards is to have these vital state agencies directly removed from state politics.”

But Clarke said this bill simply takes a page from the federal government, where all cabinet positions are Presidential appointees.

“I’ve always joked, ‘Why do we here in Mississippi think we’re so smart, having all these independent agencies?’” Clarke said. “I think you ought to have an executive branch and have it accountable to the governor.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.