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Divided Mississippi Legislature being run like a dictatorship

ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESSRep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, raises and issue regarding proposed resolutions for permanent rules in the House for the 2016-2020 term, at the Capitol in Jackson, on Jan. 28.
ROGELIO V. SOLIS/ASSOCIATED PRESSRep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, raises and issue regarding proposed resolutions for permanent rules in the House for the 2016-2020 term, at the Capitol in Jackson, on Jan. 28. AP

The new Republican supermajority succeeded in making the 2016 Mississippi Legislative Session one of the least productive and most contentious on record. Aside from those accomplishments, the 2016 Session was a bust -- as many reasonable Republicans agree.

Despite what appeared to be bipartisan consensus on several major issues in January, the legislature was not able to enact legislation to address them. The failure to create good public policy was largely due to the militaristic refusal of Republican leaders to allow consideration of legislation if it required working with Democrats. Because of the dictatorial style employed by legislative leadership, the atmosphere of the 2016 session was by far the worst of the 9 sessions in which I have served.

As the session began in January there seemed to be near unanimity concerning the need for a big road and bridge repair bill. The business community was supportive and the state's chamber of commerce -- The Mississippi Economic Council -- was serving as a cheerleader. Most everyone agrees with those businessmen and women who maintain that you cannot get your products to market without good roads.

There was bipartisan support to get something done with regard to our state's infrastructure in 2016.

There was also recognition at the outset that Mississippians truly want to fund public education after the vote on Proposition 42, despite its failure to pass. However, the 2016 session quickly devolved into partisan deadlock when Speaker Philip Gunn was seen as abetting Gov. Phil Bryant's takeover of Jackson Airport -- not by any stretch the most important issue needing tackling during this session.

What followed after this early conflict, though, is what has most people talking in the local coffee shops around the state. In the span of about a week the bill to change the state flag died, the governor declared that April would be Confederate Heritage Month, the Church Militia bill passed and then the ironically named "Religious Freedom Bill" (HB1523) was passed and signed by the governor.

In the weeks that followed this unfortunate succession of events, the six people who craft our state budget began their work. Largely because of corporate tax cuts handed out in previous years, there wasn't enough money to go around. There was talk of cuts to state agency budgets and use of one-time money (read BP settlement funds) to plug budget holes. The rumors were not nearly so bad as what actually transpired in creating the budget for fiscal year 2017-2018.

'Going to fail'

Every agency underwent budget cuts, some as severe as 18 percent. In real terms, these are serious cuts to programs such as emergency management and mental health that will have serious repercussions. Before you begin to think this is a partisan point of view, consider what Republican Commissioner of Insurance Mike Chaney said about the budget cuts: "whole systems are going to fail. It will take a decade to fix this." Similarly, the directors of MEMA, Department of Health, and other agencies have spoken outabout the deep cuts.

Why did cuts of this magnitude have to be made? Because the Legislature previously cut corporate taxes about $200 million and because the Republican legislative leaders promised their voters that an addition $415 million in tax cuts would be forthcoming.

Over the past five legislative sessions tax cuts totaling over $620 million have been doled out to corporate special interests on the prayer that jobs will result. Regardless of whether you agree with the "Trickle Down" economic theory, it is irresponsible to cut revenue when you cannot meet your current obligations.

This is the situation in which Mississippi now finds itself -- underfunded schools, local hospitals on the verge of closing, and roads and bridges deemed dangerous for travel.

These most recent tax cuts didn't pass without some compromise, however. Promises had to be made and kept. Many moderate Republicans and Democrats wanted no part of the tax cut bill, but were threatened with the death of their precious bonded projects back home unless they cooperated. Though members of the legislature take an oath not to swap a vote on one bill for a vote on another, before the 2016 bond bill could be passed the Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves demanded that his tax cut bill be passed. The result? A $308 million bond bill that was so ridiculously loaded with special projects that State Treasurer Lynn Fitch called it "abusive." Treasurer Fitch recently wrote a letter to the members of the state bond commission expressing her concerns and said she was "shocked to see so many items included that could not meet even the basic standards for issuing bonds."

Statewide Republican office holders and agency heads appointed by the Republican Governor are decrying these actions taken in the 2016 Legislative Session. Even the conservative old guard has had enough of the irresponsible and dictatorial Republican legislative leadership. Respected conservative commentator Bill Crawford recently wrote an article appearing in the Mississippi Business Journal titled Responsible governance has had its day. Crawford says that "it seems clear, the politics of self-interest and special interests now dominate the Republican-dominated legislature."

I can confirm the accuracy of Crawford's conjecture.

'Soldiers' must obey

Legislative Republicans operate like a military unit. There is top-down control and rank and file members are merely soldiers. Fewer and fewer members are actually involved in decision-making. Even when a member strongly disagrees with leadership, they are required to follow orders.

"Vote green (Yes) on the bill and vote red (No) on all amendments" is a familiar text message delivered to Republican members of the House prior to important votes.

The messenger is a man employed and paid handsomely by the taxpayers of this state to enforce the Speaker's agenda and keep House Republicans in line. If a member of the House dares challenge leadership by voting consistent with his conscience or the needs of his district, it is immediately apparent due to the large screen for displaying votes called "the Board" now having been separated into two columns, organized by party affiliation.

Thus, if a Republican member of the House strays to vote No, they may be the sole red light appearing in a sea of Republican green on "the Board." Retribution for such disobedience is certain and swift. Your bills won't be considered, your district gets shorted in the budget or in a bond bill, or you may lose membership on a key committee.

What is described above is totalitarian rule, and this is how the Republican leadership currently controls the Mississippi Legislature. However, this is not the way voters expect their government to work. Opposing opinions need to be heard and considered in order for the best policy decisions to be made.

The people of Mississippi deserve and expect the legislative process to be inclusive of all ideas and opinions.

The question is what can Mississippians do about this government they elected? Obviously, even Republicans in Mississippi are now asking what can be done about our ship of state that appears to be headed for the rocks.

The MEC funds a poll every year to afford its business members an opportunity to determine the issues it will prioritize.

In the 2015 poll Mississippi businesses were asked what they felt was the biggest impediment to economic growth in the state. The No. 1 response was the state's negative image. The actions of the

Legislature in the 2016 Session did nothing to help improve the negative image of our state, and I would argue only made the perception of our state worse in the eyes of everyone in the world.

What Mississippi needs now is a new poll on the question of just who is the biggest roadblock to economic prosperity in our state. These polls are sometimes called elections and there will be another one in 2019.

Contact David Baria, Democratic leader in the state House, at DBaria@house.ms.gov

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