The Mississippi Legislature of 2007 is different from those of years gone by in several ways. The most prominent is that Haley Barbour is the first governor in memory to have held sway over the lawmaking and money-allocating branch of government.
One thing the 122-member House and the 52-member Senate remember, however, is that everyone benefits from a "keep the lids on" posture during election years. Lawmakers will finish the 2007 session with barely a whiff of controversy. It's just easier to campaign when there are no hot-button issues, when no votes are recorded that might offend somebody.
For all the national acclaim that Barbour brought with him back to Mississippi - senior political adviser to Ronald Reagan, chairman of the National Republican Committee when the Contract With America was devised and led to Republican control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years - plenty of observers, including this one, said he would find things different in Mississippi.
The reason is that this state's 1890 constitution, written by legislators, grants the Legislature far more clout than any other branch of government. Mississippi governors, by law, are little more than figureheads. Just one contrast is that American presidents and vice presidents are elected on the same ballot and heads of all executive branches serve at the president's pleasure. In Mississippi, the governor has some agency heads to appoint, but most top state officials are elected independently. The attorney general doesn't answer to the governor. The lieutenant governor not only doesn't answer to the governor, he or she may be from a different political party.
But whether he planned it or not, the Barbour Revolution included the taking of the Senate. For four years that chamber has reliably done his bidding and now actually has a majority of Republicans in its membership.
Killing what he wanted
It wasn't necessary for Barbour to control the House. That chamber can pass whatever it wants but with so many senators taking their cues from the governor's office, Barbour has killed any measure he wanted killed.
In the coming election, Barbour will work hard for a second term. Clearly, however, he also wants to populate all other statewide offices with fellow Republicans, to increase the GOP hold on the Senate and to make inroads against Democrats in the House.
Speaking of those guys - led by Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Budget Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson - Barbour has left them sputtering so far this year.
Here's an example: "Full funding" of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program seemed to be the topic on which Barbour would be shamed by House Democrats. They voted during the session's first week to provide record dollars to public schools. A showdown loomed, because in December Barbour had called MAEP's formulas "artificial." He said he would propose an increase for schools, but to be spent on his ideas, not the formulas. A few weeks later in his State of the State speech (and in light of a lower estimate to fully fund MAEP), Barbour decided to call for full MAEP funding not only this session, but for years to come.
As Barbour won wide praise for what amounted to a change of position, House Democrats, who had favored full MAEP funding all along, were chagrined, to say the least. In their view, Barbour got glory for changing his mind, while they got zip for ardent and unfailing commitment to schools.
As it happens, the best illustration of the "keep the lid on" thing also involves Barbour.
The most popular piece of legislation to come along in many years is the so-called tax swap posited by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck in 2006. Legislation to raise the levy on tobacco while slicing it on groceries was back this year. It passed the House and went to the Senate.
Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, has used his authority not to call the bill up for a committee vote. Tuck has the authority to pull the bill and assign it to a different committee, but it's not in the best interests of a departing, job-hunting lieutenant governor to roil the waters.
Barbour, who vetoed the swap last year and said he would do so again, doesn't want it as an issue in his own campaign. So Robertson sat on it, public attention has faded and lawmakers will quietly adjourn.
There have been several issues on which principled slugfests could have been undertaken. All, however, were left for another day. It's a lot easier to get re-elected when the waters are calm.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.