Sid Salter

SID SALTER

It was back in April of this year at a Stennis Institute of Government’s Capitol Press Corps luncheon and the topic was finance proposals for the state’s neglected roads and bridges.

At the press luncheon, Phillip Gunn touted a House proposal commonly referred to as a “tax swap” that would have broadly paired state income tax cuts with state fuel tax increases over four years.

But Gunn’s House and the state Senate under the leadership of fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves were unable to agree on the House proposal this year, as the two chambers had been unable to agree on similar prior proposals.

A week prior to the April press luncheon, when Gunn and other House leaders unveiled the “tax swap” plan, Reeves was asked about his views on the proposal and told the media: “I am a Republican. I am a conservative. I am against raising gas taxes.”

Without making direct reference to Reeves’ earlier remarks, Gunn told the Stennis press luncheon crowd: “I am a conservative. I am a Republican. I am not for raising anybody’s taxes. But I don’t stop there. I’m for showing leadership and for solving a problem.”

The House-Senate rift made headlines primarily last year over infrastructure and the politically associated online use tax issue, but those were certainly not the only issues.

This is not the first time in Mississippi history that there were visible tensions between the leaders of the House and Senate and most importantly between the rank-and-file members. And that was true when Democrats held the same dominance in state government that Republicans enjoy today.

Such is the predictable process of the making of the legislative “sausage.”

The tenures of the late Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Dye and the late Democratic House Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman featured some of the same disagreements. And relationships between House and Senate conference committee members were often contentious.

Listening to Gunn speak to the Starkville Rotary Club this week, the degree of change in state government dictated by the 2019 elections was rather obvious in his remarks. To be sure, Gunn was a loyal Republican and there was zero talk of prior policy disagreements with Gunn’s fellow GOP officials.

Consider the state’s coming political landscape: At the end of this year, Mississippi will have elected a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer. We already have a state auditor and a state agriculture commissioner who are both still newly minted by relatively recent gubernatorial appointments who will be elected for terms of their own. The only veteran among our eight statewide elected officials who wants to return to his present post and was unopposed is the state insurance commissioner.

The 2019 election cycle will see significant legislative turnover based on Senate and House members either retiring or seeking other offices, including many key legislative leaders from the money committees in both chambers. Just over 21 percent of the Senate will turn over in this manner. At least nine percent of the House will be similarly impacted. Others simply got beat in the normal ebb and flow of politics.

During his Starkville speech, Gunn was unapologetic about his conservative principles. But it was evident from his remarks that he is mindful of the fact that state government is facing a significant realignment. Not necessarily from a partisan standpoint, but from having different people in different positions of authority.

There is a belief among many Capitol observers that Gunn and his House leadership team will reassert themselves in the chamber’s dealings with the Senate, the new statewide elected officials and the new legislators.

With the certainty of a new governor and a new lieutenant governor, Gunn will be the lone major player in the legislative process returning to a job where he enjoys significant experience. That advantage is not likely to be wasted on the thoughtful, affable lawmaker from Clinton.

SID SALTER is a syndicated Mississippi columnist. Readers can contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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