The mood in the Mississippi House chamber after Rep. Mark Formby made the motion to adjourn sine die was similar to the last day of school before summer vacation. Despite a few schoolyard scuffles and the sometime cliquish nature of a bitterly divided Legislature, members of opposite parties bear-hugged each another, posed for class photos and even signed each other's yearbooks.
As of Thursday, May 3, the 2012 session of the Mississippi Legislature is in the record books. For those who were keeping score, it was a historic one. It was the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans controlled the Legislature (of course, the Republican Party of the 1880s was very different from the GOP that now rules the state) and the first time since the 1970s that a new speaker, lieutenant governor and governor all came into office at the same time.
Going into the session, which started in January, how Republicans would wield their new supermajority and how Democrats would assert themselves as the minority in both houses and defend their diminishing influence in the state remained in doubt.
"It was a little shorter on acrimony than I would have guessed when it got started. Generally, the Democrats accepted their fate in a pretty upstanding fashion," said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute on Government at Mississippi State University.
Political observers braced for an onslaught of conservative-tinged legislation that could never gain traction under House Democrats—and an onslaught is exactly what they got.
In total, lawmakers filed hundreds of bills, only about a third of which even made it to the House and Senate floors.
Republican leaders chalked up as victories legislation overhauling the workers compensation system, limiting the power of the state attorney general, new regulations on abortion clinics that could eliminate the constitutionally protected service from the state, drawing voting maps and passing a budget.
At a post-adjournment press conference in his office, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, touted what he considered achievements on his, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant's agendas. These included passing an inventory tax cut, making the state's workers' compensation laws more favorable to employers, checking the power of the state's top lawyer through the so-called Sunshine Act and putting more money into education. Gunn also gave a nod to the Democrats in saying that the "spirit of the House of Representatives was a good one, especially at the end" when the chamber settled on a $5.6-billion budget.
Reeves, who controls the Senate, echoed Gunn. During a separate news conference, Reeves said lawmakers brought down the state's debt, placed a moratorium on buying new state vehicles, phased out a tax on inventories and "strengthened the state's workers' compensation law" in addition settling on a spending plan—ahead of schedule.
The state will also get an additional $126 million in revenues, with an extra $64 million going to Medicaid. The unexpected cash means that most agencies in the fiscal year 2013 budget are funded at the same level as the current year's budget, and the state can set aside $200 million for next year's rainy-day fund.
The budget includes $2.3 billion for education, which includes $19 million toward funding the MAEP education-funding formula, which is still $250 million short of fully funding K-12 education in the state.
Reeves added new restrictions on abortion clinics that threatened to shut down the state's only abortion clinic—an achievement for conservatives around the state. Finally getting a looser charter-schools law and scaring off undocumented workers with strict anti-immigration laws are two key agenda items that appeared to be slam-dunks at the outset of the session but didn't make it to Bryant's desk.
"Both houses got done what was possible," Wiseman said.
A 'Pro-business' Session
If you own a business—especially a monolithic international corporation—that operates in Mississippi, you made out pretty good with the Legislature this year. In fact, Bryant called it the most pro-business session in Mississippi history.
After several attempts, a workers' comp bill broke through. Backers said the changes were needed to level the playing field between vulnerable companies and unscrupulous drugged-out workers who might try to cash in on a workplace accident. The new rules require workers who claim to have been injured at work to be tested for drugs and alcohol.
Despite its ultimate passage, Brown said Democrats were able to put their imprint on the bill. With some help from a handful of Republicans, the House's version of the workers' comp bill died. The version that lawmakers eventually adopted also protected the so-called found-dead presumption in workers' comp law that assumes people found dead at their places of business died in the course of doing their jobs. Backers wanted to do away with the provision, but later versions of the bill kept the found-dead presumption intact, something Brown attributes to his party's lobbying.
Another boon for the businesses came in the form of a state tax credit for companies that hold inventories in the state. The elimination of the inventory tax could be a $30-million hit to the state treasury in the next three years.
Bryant thinks the state will reap the benefits of revenue generated by new health-care zones that will be established around the state.
Changes are also on the way for hospitals that depend on Medicaid funding. Hospitals that had received Medicaid reimbursements on a per diem basis will now get paid according to a patient's diagnosis.
Under the new rules, the state pays a set amount for a particular service. If the hospitals manage the allocation efficiently, they "can keep the change," explained Gwen Combs, vice president for policy at the Mississippi Hospital Association.
Legislative reapportionment, or redistricting, was the last big-ticket item the Legislature considered before going home. Because in last year's session lawmakers didn't pass a decennial redistricting plan as required by law, lawmakers had to do it this year or the federal government would take over the responsibility.
House Republicans unveiled their plan first. It added two districts in DeSoto County and increased the overall number of majority-minority districts by one. It also might reduce the overall number of Democrats, mostly by pitting white Democrats against each other. In Jackson, the House plan would force Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, to run against Bill Denny, R-Jackson, who oversaw crafting the map.
"I don't think it's personal, but it's certainly political," Brown said of the Denny map.
House Democrats complained about not having ample time to vet the Senate plan, which adds three majority-minority Senate voting districts. Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, offered an alternative map would have added a fourth, possibly African American, seat to the Senate proposal and spoke about the need for checks and balances between the two chambers.
"I don't think Mississippi's founding fathers meant for us to rubber stamp whatever the Senate sends over here," he said.
Denny rejected claims that the Senate plan was unfair to blacks, citing the fact that 10 African American senators voted for the proposal. As in 2002, Dr. Richard Engstrom of Duke University, Dr. Jerry Webster of the University of Wyoming and Clark Benson drew the new Senate maps, he said.
Rickey Cole, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, called both electoral maps "thinly veiled attempt(s) to resegregate Mississippi."
"As with the House plan, I'm underwhelmed," Cole said. The House plan, which adds one majority black district, concentrates African American voters in the same districts and pits some white Democrats against each other.
"I think it's pretty apparent that Republicans want to pack all the African Americans they can in African American districts," Cole said.
Now that the state Legislature has approved the maps, the U.S. Department of Justice must scrutinize them to make sure that they don't suppress the voting rights of racial minorities.
However, other groups could challenge them in court before the DOJ finishes its examination. In 2011, the Mississippi NAACP sued to block maps drawn then from taking effect. Cole said there has rarely been a redistricting plan in recent memory that did not involve litigation. He said the state party has not discussed the possibility of legal action.
With so much still in the air, Brown said he hasn't given much thought to the prospect of competing against Denny in 2013.
"That's two or three years away. I'm not really thinking about that," he said.