The Legislature's opening day was part sports competition, part stage play. Even before adopting temporary rules, Democrats in the Mississippi House of Representatives tried to flex their muscle to show the party is an underdog not to be messed with, even though they are outnumbered.
Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, presented the first resolution of 2016—before temporary rules were even adopted. The resolution proposed that the chamber webcam stay on until 8 p.m. every day the Mississippi House of Representatives is in session. This, she argued, would enable members and committee chairmen the opportunity to discuss legislation in a public forum.
"This is, in my opinion, transparency," Scott said. "(It) gives you an opportunity for those of you who say that you don't have a voice and can't get your message out."
The resolution did not get off the ground, despite some Democratic votes. The House of Representatives took voice votes—yelling "aye" and "no" instead of recorded roll-call votes before the temporary rules were adopted.
The roaring "no" votes in response to the transparency proposal reflects the House Republican majority, even more recognizable on the large reader-board at the front of the House, which now lists representatives by party affiliation first and last name second. Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, stayed in the back of the chamber until what seemed like a pre-game warm-up ended with Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, delivering a perfectly sculpted nomination speech. Gunn claimed that his re-election was even more special than four years ago.
"You've seen that I am not a perfect man, and I have many flaws," he told the House. "You've chosen to look past my shortcomings."
The "we" does not include most Democrats who chose to remain silent for the voice vote to re-elect Gunn. The Mississippi Senate and House elected their second-in-commands last week: Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, as speaker pro tempore of the House, and Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, as Senate president pro tempore. Beyond those elections, no committee chairmanships or committees were set in the first week or by press time, largely due to disputed election contests: one in the House and one in the Senate.
'What's Best for Children, Not Adults'
State officials and legislators were sworn in Jan. 7 in the crowded House chamber. Every chair (and extra chair) was taken as Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. swore in state-elected officials, save the governor, who was inaugurated for a second term Tuesday, Jan. 12.
The House ceremony, a lot like a high school graduation, had legislators on their feet a lot because standing ovations are standard protocol for inauguration day. State-elected officials were on the floor with their families (and in some cases, extended families and friends).
If the event was a high school graduation, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was the student-body president who used his time to outline his legislative priorities for education by "focusing on what's best for children and not adults."
Reeves praised charter-school success in the state so far, as well as the educational programs the Legislature worked to fund in the last four years. That included reading coaches in some school districts and professional-development programs for teachers that have produced results, he said.
"The challenges cannot be tackled by quick fixes," Reeves said Jan. 7. "I believe we can work together to find the best approach for our children; in fact, Mississippi's prosperity depends on it."
K-12 education is likely to be a focus of the upcoming session—on issues from changing parts of the state's funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, to changing the state's charter-school law.
Dahmer Honored 50 Years After Murder
The Mississippi Senate passed a bipartisan resolution last week to honor Vernon Dahmer Sr. on the 50th anniversary of his murder by Ku Klux Klansmen at his home in Hattiesburg, by declaring Jan. 10, 2016, "Vernon Dahmer Legacy Day."
The Mississippi Legislature recognized the Dahmer family at the Capitol Friday morning. Following the formal recognition, the Dahmer family and several civil-rights activists, like Hollis Watkins who worked with SNCC in Hattiesburg and knew Dahmer Sr. in the 1960s, gathered at the Old Capitol Museum after the ceremony to honor his legacy.
Dennis Dahmer, one of his sons, thanked the Mississippi Legislature for working on the resolution to honor his father regardless of party lines—and called for them to look past partisanship to do what will help people unlike them.
"It shows that you can cooperate if you want to cooperate," he said. "The only thing I would ask our elected officials ... is to be considerate that everybody is not in the same position in life, and different groups have different needs."
Dennis echoed his father's belief that the power of the ballot was the only way to bring about change, and he said that while Mississippi has come a long way, it still has a long way to go.
Vernon was a civil-rights activist and NAACP chapter president in Forrest County in the 1960s. He led the charge for voting rights and supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers in Hattiesburg to bring a voter-registration project to the area. He was an independent farmer, and he had a big family. He remarried twice, and his third wife, Ellie Dahmer, was with him the night the Ku Klux Klan attacked his home.
Klansmen firebombed the Dahmer home on Jan. 10, 1966. The family survived, but the father died from the damage to his lungs from the fire. Four of his children and his wife attended the event at the Legislature on Friday.
The commemoration drew national attention, and in a letter from President Barack Obama to the Dahmer family, he wrote: "Citizens like Vernon Dahmer lived their lives in defense of the equality and justice in an endeavor to make our nation true to itself. These heroes embody the patriotism we proudly carry forward."
Infrastructure: A Priority?
Attorney General Jim Hood's Jan. 7 inauguration party on the bottom floor of the Sillers Building turned into a receiving line of guests, who had formed a ring that outlined the lobby. The attorney general worked his way around the room, greeting people with warm handshakes.
Hood told the Jackson Free Press that he plans to focus his efforts on Internet crime in the upcoming year, battling child pornography and protecting kids.
Additionally, Hood said his office is looking at education in the state as well as infrastructure concerns that could get the state sued.
A Mississippi Economic Council report released in December showed that 936 state bridges and 24,591 miles of state road need repair, and the number increases when county and local roads and bridges are factored in.
The report said the state needs $375 million annually to make the necessary repairs over 10 years. It calls for the Legislature to increase funding by at least $75 million annually.
MEC offered a "menu of funding options" to support infrastructure needs. Options range from excise or sales taxes on gas and diesel, increased registration fees, tolls or other tax increases. The Legislature could use several of the suggested options at once, and MEC hopes to work with legislators in the upcoming session to figure out how to fund the infrastructure needs.
"Our infrastructure is falling in, and we could get sued on that kind of stuff," Hood said.
"Education is still an issue out there that somebody needs to be talking about ... so I'll be doing a lot more vocally in those areas in the next four years."
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