By JEFF AMY
JACKSON — The curtain rises Tuesday on a new era of Republican dominance in Mississippi.
House and Senate members will be sworn in at noon, with Lt. Gov.-elect Tate Reeves and other statewide officers taking their oaths Thursday. Phil Bryant will be sworn in as Mississippi’s 64th governor on Jan. 10.
Though Republicans swelled their majority in the state Senate, maybe the biggest change is the party’s takeover of the House. The party gained nine seats and one when Donnie Bell of Fulton switched from the Democrats, giving the GOP 64 votes in the 122-seat chamber.
Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who Republicans chose as their speaker candidate in a closed meeting in November, may get more than 64 votes when the House chooses its presiding officer Tuesday. No opponent has emerged publicly, and some Democrats have said they will vote for Gunn, including Reps. George Flaggs of Vicksburg and Steve Holland of Plantersville.
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said he didn’t believe anyone would oppose Gunn. He said there’s little point in his party starting a fight it’s sure to lose.
“They have the votes and I don’t see any reason for us to have chaos starting out the session,” Hines said.
Gunn, who would be the first Republican to serve as House speaker since Reconstruction ended in 1876, said he welcomed the support of all House members.
“We need to bring this thing together,” he said.
Gunn announced his support for Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, as the second-ranking House officer and also tapped Andrew Ketchings for House clerk. Ketchings is a former state House member who has worked as a legislative lobbyist for Gov. Haley Barbour. But Gunn has said he’s not likely to announce who will lead committees until a few days after the Legislature convenes.
Gunn hasn’t said whether he will name any Democrats to leadership positions. Republicans were angered at their exclusion when outgoing House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, named only Democrats to chair committees in 2008 after a bruising speaker’s race. Some Democrats hope Gunn will look past that slight.
“Mississippi needs to have an inclusive and diverse set of leaders,” Hines said.
Senators say they’re not sure who the incoming lieutenant governor will tap for committees. Last week, the outgoing state treasurer said he wanted Columbus Republican Terry Brown to be president pro tem, the No. 2 post to the lieutenant governor.
The 2012 session, at the start of a four-year term, lasts for 120 days. That’s longer than the 90-day sessions that will follow in the next three years. The extra time may be welcomed by an unusually large crop of new lawmakers. There will be 32 new members in the 122-seat House, and 15 new members in the 52-seat Senate.
The GOP holds a 21-11 majority among House freshmen and a 13-2 majority among Senate freshmen. That large incoming class, combined with the switch of Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford to the GOP from the Democratic Party, will give Republicans a 31-21 margin in the Senate. That’s enough to pass tax and revenue bills without any Democrats.
The new members have spent the two months since their election trying to get their bearings and picking out their desks. Republican Will Longwitz, a Madison lawyer who will be sworn in Tuesday as a state senator, said he’s still getting used to the idea of being an elected official.
“It’s a doubly special session for me,” said Longwitz, who has been encouraging new senators to work together. “It’s my first experience as a legislator, but it’s also the first time the Republicans will control the Legislature since Reconstruction.”
Even veterans will be adjusting. Democrats will have to learn how to be an effective opposition, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson has said. And Republicans will have to learn how to govern.
“I’m going to be in a different role and need to acclimate myself about how that might feel,” said Snowden, who survived a tight re-election race only to be anointed as the likely House speaker pro term.
Among the big issues that Bryant, Reeves and lawmakers have identified for the coming year are:
- Crafting a state budget challenged by tight revenues.
- Broadening the state’s charter school law.
- Examining new state restrictions on illegal immigrants.
- Considering changes to the state’s public employee pension system.
- Drawing new districts for lawmakers.
- Restricting Attorney General Jim Hood’s ability to hand out lucrative legal work.
With a new governor, new lieutenant governor and new speaker, Hines said it may take a while to sort out whose policy priorities will take precedence.
“I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to have people trying to establish their agendas,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how many of their agenda items line up.”