Philip Gunn over three terms as speaker of the Mississippi House had pulled off the near-impossible: He gained de facto control over what legislation lived or died in the chamber, and often even what bills could be openly discussed or amended.
But in his last — by his own choice — session as speaker, Gunn’s iron-fisted grip has been cracked, by his own Republican supermajority caucus. And the GOP uprising against his secretive, top-down, need-to-know-only, national think tank-driven governance appears to have cost him what he saw as his legacy policy: elimination of the state’s personal income tax.
Now, as is Gunn’s modus operandi, none of this happened in public-facing legislative debate or committee work in “the people’s House.” It happened in one of his closed-door GOP caucus club meetings. And the first rule of House GOP Caucus Club is: You don’t talk about House GOP Caucus Club. Indeed, only a few representatives in the meeting have spoken publicly about what happened, and some of that was just to tattle on those who threw Gunn’s yoke on the tax bill.
Accounts among several members vary, but generally what happened is this: Gunn, about midway through the 2023 session, keeping counsel only with his chief of staff (he’s a rocket scientist, did you know?) and a couple of his top lieutenants, decided to push through his tax elimination legislation. So he decided it was time to let the rank-and-file Republican lawmakers know what they would be expected to ratify.
In an 11 a.m., 30-minute caucus meeting (tight schedule, because some think-tankers were scheduled to give a presentation to the caucus after), Gunn announced he was rolling out his plan to eliminate the income tax.
A bill was drafted, but members were not allowed to read it. Magnanimously, they were allowed to ask a few questions. The plan was to zip the legislation through committee after lunch, then pass it on the House floor at 2 p.m. One would assume House lawmakers would have been able to read the actual bill after they passed it.
But apparently quite a few GOP House members were suffering what one has dubbed “speaker fatigue,” after years of being kept in the dark until time to vote on sea-change legislation, often ideological policy that has little to do with the needs of the average Mississippian. Instead of doing as told, a sizable number of House Republicans that day indicated they were not ready to blindly pass such major policy.
Accounts vary on how many Republicans bucked. One of Gunn’s top lieutenants later said it was about 10 or 12. Others say it was easily double that. Regardless, it was enough that Gunn was unsure he had a lock on passing the tax measure, which requires a three-fifths vote. As the 2023 session enters the homestretch, it appears Gunn’s apex legislation is dead, if not dead, dead, dead. More the pity, Gov. Tate Reeves, who struggles to come up with his own major policy initiatives, considers it among his apex issues, too.
House Republicans, speaking largely off record because of Gunn’s code of omerta for caucus meetings where most of the House’s real work is done, are hearing a lot from constituents back home this election year. They want better roads, better jobs, better health care, better schools, lower grocery bills and car tag fees. They’re not clamoring for a phase out of the state’s income tax, likely because it’s already low and getting lower after the Legislature last year passed the largest income tax cuts in state history, being phased in starting this year.
The tax elimination battle between House and Senate last year ground legislative work to a halt and threatened all other initiatives, and members were not relishing the thought of a 2023 repeat. Some had concerns that Gunn was not pushing commensurate cuts in government spending as he worked to eliminate a third of the state’s revenue. Some, apparently, are also tiring of voting for national think tank or ideologically driven social legislation that puts the state in a bad national spotlight and does nothing to help the lives of average Mississippians.
Legislation in the House is as likely to originate in Washington, Florida, Texas or some conservative ivory tower than it is from the grassroots in Mississippi. Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers appear to be tiring of being graded with some national think-tank report cards instead of what they’re doing for folks back home. And they also appear to be chafing at the House system — which is supposed to be unruly and transparent and democratic by design — being thwarted by the speaker’s success at cat herding, secrecy and supermajority building.
Several House Republican lawmakers believe this isn’t a one-off, that lame-duck Gunn’s grip has been broken, even if it’s in the twilight of his rule, and that such a tight grip will not be granted to his successor in the speakership.
Regardless, Gunn had a spectacular run as speaker. It’s a hard job that has been likened to herding cats but is probably more like herding eels. The fact that he managed to exert such tight control over legislation is noteworthy.
But somewhere along the way, it appears Gunn lost touch with not only rank-and-file Mississippians, but with rank-and-file Republican House members.