What The Tuck!?! | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

What The Tuck!?!

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In November 2002, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, a long-time Democrat, shook a few corners of the Mississippi political underground by announcing that she would now be called Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck. "I feel that the Republican Party is more in line with my conservative philosophies," Tuck said in a statement. Nick Walters, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Authority, told The Clarion-Ledger in 2002 that Tuck "has essentially been governing as a Republican, and her switch would only serve to make her conservative stands compatible with her political party."

In January 2006, however, Tuck, 42, surprised everybody and stepped out of the dark recesses of Barbour's shadow. Early in the session, the 1985 Mississippi State graduate came out in support of a bill to increase Mississippi's 18-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes—the lowest in the nation for a state that doesn't even grow tobacco—to $1, with a 75-cent jump in July, followed by another 25-cent hop next year. The move surprised many politicos who thought Tuck incapable of choosing her own path.

"Hurricane Katrina changed a lot of things in this country, and it certainly changed a lot of things in the state of Mississippi, so I'm going to assume that the hurricane may have had an impact on the lieutenant governor because she's certainly operating different in '06 than she did in either '05 or' 04," said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

Tuck's Truck Turns Right
Amy Tuck's first seismic shift came months ahead of her candidacy for a second term as lieutenant governor, and even though lieutenant governors and governors do not run on a single platform in Mississippi as they do in some states, Tuck made no bones about her philosophical proximity to Barbour, often appearing in many photo ops with him.

Prior to her switch, Democrats accused Tuck of helping thwart the 2001 special legislative session that would have likely resulted in a new Democrat-favored district. Results of the 2000 Census required the state to eliminate one of its voting districts, and when the House failed to agree with Senate Republicans in drawing new district lines, Republicans knew a three-judge federal panel made up of GOP appointees could decide the lines. Tuck was leading the Senate at the time of the 2001 special session, and the decision went to the GOP appointees.

For one, redistricting prompted by the 2000 Census required the state to eliminate one of its voting districts, and without Tuck, one of those districts operated by Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering could have been a goner. Her intervention led to a merger between Pickering's district and the district of conservative Democrat Ronnie Shows. With more Republicans voting in the new district, voters decided to carry a "real" Republican instead of the "Republican-lite" they found in Shows.

The dynamic duo of Barbour and Tuck carried their respective elections in November 2003, and since that time they've largely been joined at the hip, at least in terms of support for state legislation.

Barbour stood for more tort reform in 2004. Tuck stood for more tort reform in 2004. Barbour stood against tax and fee hikes in 2005. A bill pushing fees and tax hikes died in the Senate in 2005. Barbour howled "no new taxes" in 2005. The Senate, under Tuck's leadership, stalled House bills raising taxes—knowing full well that Barbour would get his way during a special session called in order to get around opposition.

Tuck's position as lieutenant governor allows her to put a lock on any bill she doesn't like, and it was no coincidence that the Senate passed bills palatable to Barbour.

"Since Barbour has been elected he has worked with Tuck to virtually control the Senate and turn it into the governor's speaking box," said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. "It's an alliance that is not good for the state. The government was designed to be a strong legislature government, but Barbour worked with Tuck to turn it from a governor-vs.-Senate-vs.-House system into a governor/Senate-vs.-House system and changed the whole thing."

The GOP's Best Girl
Tuck's intervention as lieutenant governor and control over the Senate docket allowed conservative antagonism to costly lawsuit awards against businesses to gain a foothold in state law, for instance. With Barbour's wealth and influence pushing public opinion in Mississippi toward the belief that we have become a "judicial hellhole"—despite strong evidence to the contrary—the Legislature soon caved and capped pain and suffering damages at $500,000 in 2002.

"As a Democrat, Amy Tuck has been a pretty good Republican," Walters told The Clarion-Ledger.

For two regular legislative sessions and countless special sessions called when Barbour couldn't get his way, Mississippi's new system has cranked out a host of conservative bills, despite the impotent rage of the largely Democratic House. The new Republican coalition also reduced benefits for seniors, kicked Poverty Level, Aged and Disabled (PLADs) off the state Medicaid plan, and passed other controversial laws that conservatives love.

As the last legislative session ended in mid-2005, it was hard to imagine that the gentlewoman from Maben would suddenly materialize as a nemesis for Barbour's corporate conservative ideals in 2006.

Veering the Other Direction
The 2006 legislative session began with everyone getting along. That illusion subsided quickly, though, as the news sank in that Tuck was going her own way this time—especially on the subject of taxes.

A Senate bill calling for an increased tobacco tax immediately offended former tobacco lobbyist Barbour, who claims the bill, which also seeks to eliminate the state's regressive 7-percent grocery tax in eight years, would crack small-town budgets fueled by the grocery tax.

"Over its nine-year life, Senate Bill 2310, as passed, would result in a $1.5 billion loss of revenue to the state and cut revenues to municipalities by $166 million," Barbour warned in a statement.

"It would hit especially hard at small towns, which depend more on sales taxes on groceries to support essential public services. By any accounting, this huge revenue loss would mean lower funding for education and basic services, and also lead to tax increases, ranging from ad valorem taxes … to sales taxes on products other than groceries … and higher income taxes. There's nothing revenue-neutral about this bill."

Last month Barbour vetoed the bill, which now awaits an attempt by the Senate for a veto override. Tuck vehemently supports an override.

The Mississippi Municipal League pushed the House to revise the bill so that the state would create a fund fed by the revenue generated by the cig tax. Legislators plan to use the fund to pay back to cities the amount they would supposedly lose in grocery sales. Barbour argues that the return from the fund isn't enough.

Tuck stood her ground despite Barbour's arguments, saying her figures, which were tallied by the Mississippi Tax Commission at her behest, were accurate and showed the money from the tobacco-tax fund could effectively replace the grocery revenue cities lost.

Barbour said his figures also come from the Tax Commission, but unlike Tuck's figures, Barbour's analysts seem to have derived their numbers using a system that Barbour's communication officer Pete Smith was slow to explain to the Jackson Free Press.

"Give me an exact question about the analysis, and I'll try to get that answer for you," Smith said, when asked for a description of the formula.

Heeding the People's Wishes
A majority of Mississippians support a cigarette tax hike this year in at least five districts, according to a poll sponsored by Communities for a Clean Bill of Health. While many senators from the poorer, rural areas say their constituents would be grateful for the death of the grocery tax, even areas lorded over by senators like J.P. Wilemon of Belmont—who voted against the bill in January—and Mike Chaney of Vicksburg—who said he would oppose the veto override—have approved of the tax with a 65 percent and 64 percent majority, respectively. Last year, a similar cigarette tax was approved by a statewide majority of 63.5 percent, according to that poll.

Chaney said pollsters framed the questions in a misleading way.

"I think the pollsters were biased and rude to call on Sunday. They said things like 'Chaney voted for a tax on tobacco and lowering your grocery tax. Do you think Mr. Chaney should lower your grocery tax?' They actually called my house so I got a recording of it," Chaney said, adding that the poll, to him, has backfired, and that the numbers only fuel his resolve to vote against the override.

A transcript of the polling questions provided by Instapoll reveals that the questions were tailored to individual districts. In districts where a senator voted against rather than for the tobacco and grocery legislation, the question reflected that difference.

Simmons said the Senate atmosphere bodes poorly for an override.

"Whatever those polls are saying, they don't seem to be having an effect on those 15 who voted against it initially. They're holding their own, and they've been able to convince three or four more to move to their side," Simmons said. "Right now, we don't have the votes to override, so the governor seems to be winning here."

This year, the popular tax remains a rallying banner for health advocates like Communities for a Clean Bill of Health and education supporters like the Children's Defense Fund, which wants a good tax on a bad habit to help fund public schools that are regularly underfunded in legislative sessions.

Ammerman said recently that Tuck had never openly opposed the cigarette tax of last session.

"There were a lot of important bills coming through during the last session. The cigarette tax just got inundated," Ammerman said.

In Mississippi, though, the lieutenant governor has the power to pluck her favored bills out of most any inundation by putting those bills at the top of the Senate's roster, so the Senate will be sure to take them up before the consideration deadline passes in early February.

"She could have saved the Senate's cigarette tax bill, or at least given it time," Simmons said, indicating that Tuck's about-face this year is all the starker.

Clash of the Titans
Tuck's philosophical clashes with Barbour have spread to numerous other fronts this year as well. Her support of a House bill to give the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi $20 million annually resulted in a virtual meltdown of her control in the Senate last Thursday. Republicans revolted against Tuck by invoking procedural moves to block the House bill by using up precious time before the Senate midnight deadline, even going so far as to have bills read aloud in their entirety.

"That is unheard of in the Tuck administration that you have a Republican resorting to having bills read in order to slow down the process," said Sen. John Hohrn, D-Jackson.

Unlike Tuck's relationship with neo-conservatives, other alliances were shaky from the beginning. The attorney general's windfall tobacco lawsuit, which has been ameliorating the state's budget deficit since 1998, was not viewed favorably by one of the tobacco companies' most highly paid lobbyists. Barbour recently moved to make funding the AG's office problematic, but Tuck moved against Barbour on this one, too.

Standing innocently on the sidelines, she stuck out her leg and tripped Barbour's proposal—which would have demanded that the Legislature review all contracts the attorney general's office enters into with private attorneys in suits against huge corporations, like Phillip Morris.

Attorney General Special Assistant Jacob Ray said he shuddered at the thought of such a system, which nevertheless won praise among Barbour's followers and sparked editorials accusing the AG's office of wasting money.

"In order for us to take on a huge corporation like Microsoft or WorldCom, we would have to have to go to the Appropriations Committee in the Senate and the House every year and ask them to write us a blank check. We already have to scratch and claw for what we have. Don't think it would be easy to get a blank check in a tight budget year," Ray said. "Tuck's proven to us that if something's right, she will stand by it."

Tuck, who said she wa too busy for an interview, seems to have slipped a little further off Barbour Mountain with her endorsement of the controversial Wellspring Project, an economic development site in Northeast Mississippi intended to attract a—so far unmentioned—automaker.

The House recently approved the project, which will spend $18 million to buy about 1,700 acres in Pontotoc and Union Counties.

"Wellspring breaks new ground in the state's involvement in a development site. The state, up until now, has been following a bird-in-the-hand thing. If we're going to fund something, it's got to be a bird in the hand. (Wellspring) is a departure from that philosophy. Many legislators would like to see projects funded in a non-traditional way," Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, said.

The Wellspring Project has drawn criticism from conservatives, who compare the investment to another beef-plant fiasco—a project pushed by both Democrats and Republicans, with the blessing of Gov. Barbour—which cost the state millions of dollars and is now being investigated by the state auditor's office, with the possibility of indictments looming for more than one person involved. Former plant owner Richard Hall has already pled guilty to three counts of mail fraud.

Viva Tuck's Revolution!
Tuck's revolutionary change in behavior is getting a reaction from political observers, who of late simply considered her a voice box for Barbour.

Former Sen. Barbara Blackmon, who ran against Tuck as her Democratic opponent in the 2004 elections, often painted Tuck as more of a follower in speeches during the heat of that election.

"Tuck always bent with the popular opinion," Blackmon said in a 2002 interview. "I remember she would always go around the floor and see how everybody else was going to vote before she threw in her own decision. She's rarely ever come up with her own opinion."

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University and a self-professed "political junkie," said Tuck's sudden rebelliousness is possibly the result of her realizing that her legacy as a lieutenant governor is too closely connected to that of the governor.

"I think Amy looked at the fact that she has about two years left in this term and looked at the fact that in Mississippi nobody is tied to the governor's ticket and everybody has to row their own boat, and she has not produced a boat to row since she came into the Republican Party, so she had to break away from Haley's apron strings and begin to chart her own course," Wiseman said, adding that Tuck is now going to have to reclaim her base.

"She knows her base, and she knows the grocery tax was a popular move because she's always possessed a tinge of populism for that rural constituency and courthouse crowd so she was saying 'wait a minute, I'm still out here.' But the fact is this rebelliousness is really no different than a college student leaving home to go to college: It doesn't mean they're throwing their parents overboard. It just means they're exerting their independence," Wiseman said.

Lee McMullen, 37, who lives in Tuck's hometown of Maben, Miss., says he doesn't approve of Tuck's recent stand against Barbour, particularly concerning the cigarette tax.

"As far the cigarette tax goes, I'm with Governor Barbour. I don't like new taxes," said McMullen, who thinks many of his neighbors feel the same way. "I wish she hadn't come out on her own and did that. This was the wrong issue to go independent on."

Tuck v. Barbour?
Some political observers wonder if Tuck's newfound independence is preparation for a future gubernatorial run against Haley Barbour in 2007. Some voters wonder if Tuck may even be considering a second leap over the fence, back to the Democratic Party.

Wiseman said he doubted Tuck was headed for a run against Barbour, even though term limits leave Tuck only two more years in her current office. "Reporters looking to fawn over the idea of Tuck running against Barbour in the next election should find something else to fawn over," Wiseman said.

"I think people let themselves dream a little bit when Amy came out against the governor's position on Wellspring and the sales tax on groceries, so the natural extension is that we have a schism that can produce opponents rather than folks working together. I think everybody is really saying, 'Gosh, who in the heck would run against Haley to make this race interesting enough, and wouldn't it be something if Amy was considering that?"

Wiseman added that recent, unsourced polls revealed that Barbour was currently in good standing with Mississippians. "There's been some polls secretly run out there, and they show that where Haley was showing vulnerability before Katrina he is now holding around 70 percent approval.

"I haven't seen any of those polls. I don't know who did them. I just heard about them. Any kind of event like that gives you something to measure yourself against, and you can either go way up or go way down, and in Barbour's case his leadership has been evident. Certainly we're not in the same boat as Louisiana," Wiseman said.

Barbour's approval rating in Mississippi had hit a low of 37 percent last summer, just weeks before Katrina hit, according to a SurveyUSA poll of gubernatorial popularity across the country.

Better Late Than Never?
Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louis Miler, who has locked antlers many times with Barbour, over opening national park waters off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to gas drilling, for instance, says he's heard of the same mysterious polls—and said they showed a lower approval number.

"We know his numbers were in the 30s prior to Katrina, but I heard that recent numbers only brought him up another 10 points or something like that. Nobody has officially released these polls," Miller said, adding that he was glad Tuck "stepped out of Haley's shadow."

"Better late than never," he said.

Wiseman also dismissed the idea of Tuck switching parties, no matter how progressive some of her recent decisions seem, saying Tuck's attempts at dismantling the Republican machine are not another case of Tuck shooting up a second boat before diving overboard, like she did with Democrats.

"This thing between her and Barbour is more a case of a sister-brother fight. I think she's going to be a Republican, and the Republicans better learn to appreciate her," Wiseman said.

Nevertheless, Tuck's newfound independence is riling Senate Republicans, who demand unwavering obedience. Examples were evident in last Thursday's coup in which Republicans stalled the senatorial process.

"We're seeing the beginnings of her inability to lead. The closer she gets to the end of her term, the more she's going to be perceived to be a lame duck," Horhn said of Tuck, adding that the recent crack in the cookie-cutter mentality of Senate Republicans was finally leaving some space for independent thought in the Senate.

"We're having some discussions right now among the members of the Legislative Black Caucus, conservative Democrats in the Senate and even some Republicans about the possibility that we could form alliances on some issues. It's a long shot because we have such big political differences sometimes, but politics breeds strange bedfellows," Horhn said.

Previous Comments

ID
79279
Comment

This article shows that no matter who you lie down with in the bed of politics, you never know who you will end up waking up next to. Brave analysis of what's happened over the past few years within Tuck's career. If higher political goals are a motive, then her last moves will probably help.

Author
c a webb
Date
2006-02-15T20:41:05-06:00
ID
79280
Comment

Yeah, I dunno. My jury is still out on this. I like to think that she is seeing the light about the Barbour administration, but she is too slippery to easily trust. And the really cynical side of me says it may all be part of a grand Barbour strategy somehow. ;-)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-02-15T21:43:37-06:00
ID
79281
Comment

After voting for her and hearing she was switching party I said "What the _uck, too. Adam, thanks for the heading.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2006-02-16T12:43:57-06:00
ID
79282
Comment

Adam/Donna: love the headline!

Author
Harper
Date
2006-02-17T15:23:59-06:00
ID
79283
Comment

OK she wants to increase cigarette tax and take away grocery tax, and one of the big arguments is that it will help people to quit smoking. IF PEOPLE QUIT SMOKING WHOSE GONNA PAY THE TAXES. my $0.02

Author
Ted
Date
2006-02-22T12:29:34-06:00
ID
79284
Comment

Well, one simply answer to that is that our smoking-related health-care costs would also reduce.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-02-22T12:30:49-06:00
ID
79285
Comment

Don't forget higher productivity in the workforce as a result of fewer missed days due to illness. Not to mention that, if smokers quit, that money -- which is still expendable cash -- will likely go to something else on which sales tax IS applied.

Author
Rex
Date
2006-02-22T13:51:03-06:00

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