On July 15, the Mississippi Legislature finished up a 90-minute special session in record time and with plenty of smiles. Both the Senate and the House passed similar bills providing $14 million for Baxter Healthcare in Cleveland, allowing Baxter to expand its product line and settling fears that the company's almost 800 employees might lose their jobs.
Another special session regarding bond money for Port Gibson shipbuilder Northrop Grumman may also be on the way, says House Speaker Billy McCoy, possibly putting the 2005 session round-up at five this year.
Special sessions are not new additions to the state's legislative process. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove called a session in 2000 to revamp economic incentives in the state, and then another to gather a whopping $295 million economic package for the Nissan plant. Musgrove is also infamous for the combative 82-day special session over tort reform, which, like birth control and the Confederate-emblazoned Mississippi flag, is a virtual box of TNT on the battlefield of the partisan wars.
Pundits say current Gov. Haley Barbour has moved special session governing up to a whole new level, however.
"Looking at the lack of strength accorded to the governor by the 1890 Constitution, the governor, if he's determined to have any power, has to lay down the rules and ask 'how can I manipulate this system to give me more power than I've got now as governor?'" said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University.
"Nobody is better at political strategy than Haley Barbour. He's worked out how he can get things done, given the rules he's been given to play with. If he's got a problem with a lot of bond bills, he'll call the ones he wants funded one at a time. It's the way that a governor has of setting the agenda."
McCoy has a different opinion of Barbour's preference for special sessions, saying he's using them as a means to undermine the checks and balances system devised in the state's 1890 Constitution.
"What we have now is a situation where the Senate leadership walk hand-in-glove with what the governor says to do. We've never had that situation before," said McCoy, explaining that the Senate and the governor are now working as a single body to dominate the more politically diverse House.
"There are two legislative bodies, and as one half of the legislative branch, House members don't intend to have all our ideas and all our work summarily chunked into the trashcan when it gets to the Senate at (Barbour's) order, and then turn around and bring us back in special session and spoon-feed us one piece at a time what he wants. That's not supposed to be the way it works," said McCoy.
Ward 1 Jackson councilman and conservative talk-show personality Ben Allen says the special sessions are a necessary burden on the taxpayer.
"Unfortunately we've got a Legislature that's so polarized it won't get anything done unless the governor calls for a special session that (cuts out) all the B.S. and gets down to the brass tacks. It's unfortunate that our government is down to this situation, but you've got to do what you've got to do," Allen said.
McCoy counters that the Senate has been intentionally sabotaging the regular session so that its right-wing leaders can dominate the issues within the strict parameters of a special session.
"When you're in my position, you hear things, and I knew at the first of the year that we weren't likely to have a budget agreement with the Senate. I was told that they wanted the budget to go into special session, so (the Senate) just wouldn't agree on anything and Barbour would have to call us back," McCoy said. "That way they feel like they and Barbour will have a better opportunity to get things done the way they want to and give them a chance to beat the majority House over the head and call us obstructionist."
Possibly joining the debate over the sessions in the near future are taxpayers balking at the emerging price of repeated session funding. One session averages $35,000 a day. The last one, despite its brevity, ran about $51,000 in salaries and travel. The total dollar amount spent on special sessions since the trend began this year logs in at almost $1.30 million.
Musgrove caught heavy criticism for financing special sessions in 2002. Barbour, on the other hand, has managed to dodge some back-talk, even from fiscal conservatives, despite this year's special-session costs creeping up to the $1.6 million mark met in Musgrove's tort-reform marathon.
Wiseman said the public's eye was more likely to be caught by the amount of "corporate welfare" tip-toeing out of the Legislature during the special sessions than the cost of the sessions themselves.
"When it comes to government money, I don't know what it takes to make people notice," Wiseman said.
A typo in the print edition has been corrected above. The writer referred to a $295 economic package instead of a $295 million.
The Senate-Governors Office cooperation should be a good example to us Democrats of what happens when politicos of one party or philosophy are on the same page when it matters. It gets things done is what it does. To Bad the Republicans had to be the first to figure this out.
Even though I am a Democrat, I am puzzled why folks like McCoy are suprised and whine and complain about the senate and the lt. governor working lock in step with the governors office. I mean isn't that what people do when they are off the same political philosophy? Aren't they all working for a common goal, and to do so don't you expect them to work together?
IF MS Democrats could figure out who we are, and actually start identifying with one another- and starting at least talking with the national party- maybe someday Republicans could accuse us of the horrible crime of working lock in step, together. But MS Democrats work in a vacuum, and it looks like we'll always be jealous of MS Republicans because they internally agree on most things, and actually look, walk and talk like the national GOP. I'm all about the big tent idea- heck im a very conservative Democrat- but we need to understand that we must come together on core values that make us all Democrats- till we do that we'll never beat the Republican machine. Instead of complaining about the Governor and the Senate working together- lets suck it up and learn from it. A united party is an effective one.
Don't forget, after giving them $10 million in loans and $4 million in grants (the latter being a free gift) in an effort to save Cleveland area jobs, Baxter Healthcare has decided to lay off 7.5% (60) of their employees anyway. See the C-L article.
I believe that really is whats called beating the house...
First Baxter health, now Northrop Grummand is going to lay off 900 employees after we handed them a check, according to the C-L.
When can I get some gubmint money before firing my housekeeper?
Well, here it is again.
Itís being reported that, one day after announcing 900 layoffs, Northrup Grumman is saying an additional 1,000 will be cut through attrition.
And Haleyís corporate welfare package was intended to do what?