BOBBY HARRISON: Despite funding increases, Mississippi sits at bottom

BOBBY HARRISON

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has told voters on numerous occasions throughout the state that if they want their House member to have influence during the coming four years they had better elect a Republican this November.

No ifs, ands or buts about it, Gunn said. It needs to be a Republican or the member would have as much influence as a donkey at the Kentucky Derby.

Gunn warned attendees at the Neshoba County Fair back in August that to send a Democrat House members to Jackson would mean “your district has no influence in the direction of the state. Your district has no influence on shaping policy.”

Republican House members throughout the state are running on that theme.

There used to be a time when politicians campaigned on being able to work with the opposition party and touted  being able to find common ground. But apparently, in the modern era, those politicians are few and far between.

Time will tell whether that argument will be a winner for Republicans who are trying to hold the majority they gained four years ago in the state House.

But truth be told, in legislative bodies – as long as there is some semblance of a democratic process  – minority views often have an impact.

For decades, going back to the Civil War and the simple fact that Lincoln was a Republican, Mississippi was a one-party Democratic state. It was not the Democratic Party of today. It was ultra conservative, and like Mississippi Republicans of today, much of their rhetoric was directed at the evils and overreach of the federal government.

While modern Mississippi Democrats almost seem to be a one-issue party – campaigning on the need to fully funding public education – the Mississippi Democrats of yore often spoke of closing down the public schools because of forced desegregation.

But eventually, a majority developed among Democrats in the legislative process that believed a good public school system was essential to a state’s success.

Now nearly every politician espouses those beliefs about public education, though, some people question certain politicians’ actual commitment.

But the point here is that a legislative body is a living, evolving entity.

At some point, the views of the majority in a legislative body will splinter on one issue or another and there will be a need for politicians to build coalitions to succeed. Then the minority will garner influence.

The modern Republican Party in Mississippi – in the minority for so long before reaching majority status in recent years – has been unusually cohesive on policy issues.

But even with the current batch of Republican legislators there have been chinks in that armor of cohesion in recent years. There were splits among Republicans during the past four years on such issues as charter schools, taxes, incurring long-term debt. The list goes on and on.

What happens in those cases is that the votes of Democrats who might be willing to compromise on an issue become even more important to get it passed.

There is no greater example of how majority control doesn’t mean total control than right now in the U.S. House as Republicans bicker over who will be the next speaker.

The current leadership in the U.S. House has been forced to turn to Democrats in recent years to pass key pieces of legislation.

Granted, members of the majority, normally have more influence in the legislative process. But a talented, competent, hard-working minority member can still have impact.

That impact may be to broker a deal – or even just to present arguments that prevent a piece of legislation from going as far as the author originally wanted, to temper the extent of the legislation.

Gunn knows this from his experiences in the minority in the Mississippi House.

Granted, the larger the majority, the easier for the leadership to make policy. But even with large majorities, legislative bodies sew conflict, opposition.

And where there is conflict, there is opportunity for a talented legislator – in the majority or the minority.

One quick example of where Gunn might need Democratic support, should he retain his speakership, is on the issue of changing the state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its design. Gunn has endorsed such a move.

But it is hard to imagine Gunn garnering the support of enough Republicans to make that change. In other words, if the speaker is serious about changing the flag, he will need input from Democrats.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyHarrison9.

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