Lt. governor candidates differ on how they’d pick Senate leaders

Published 10:17 pm Saturday, June 23, 2007

he next lieutenant governor will set a philosophical course for the Mississippi Senate when he chooses committee chairmen, the three candidates for the state’s second highest office agreed Saturday.

However, during a debate at the Mississippi Press Association’s summer convention, the two Republicans and one Democrat differed sharply on how they’d build a leadership team.

Democratic state Rep. Jamie Franks of Mooreville said as lieutenant governor, he would choose a diverse group of chairmen — black and white, Democratic and Republican — who “look like Mississippi.”

Republican state Auditor Phil Bryant of Brandon said he would be a “listening lieutenant governor” and consult interest groups, such as teachers, to get their ideas about which senators they’d like to see in leadership roles. He said he might not agree with the groups’ ideas, but he wants to hear them.

Republican Sen. Charlie Ross of Brandon said he would appoint chairmen who share his conservative philosophy.

“The great thing about America is that elections matter,” Ross said.

The current lieutenant governor, Republican Amy Tuck, is term-limited and could not run again this year. Ross and Bryant face off in the Aug. 7 GOP primary, and the winner will face Franks in the Nov. 6 general election.

The lieutenant governor presides over the 52-member Senate and fills in for the governor when the governor is out of state or incapacitated. The lieutenant governor also makes appointments to some state boards.

During the MPA debate at the Beau Rivage casino, the three candidates generally kept a civil tone with each other, and they agreed on several points. For example, all three said they generally would support legislation for open meetings and open records. All said they’d work to ensure the financial stability of the state employees’ retirement system. All said they oppose illegal immigration.

Their sharpest disagreement came as they discussed the Senate committee chairmanships. Legislative chairmen in Mississippi have broad powers to decide which bills live or die.

Ross, 51, who has been in the Legislature 12 years, pointed to his own experience as chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee.

“Your most important decisions are going to be made between the November election and convening in January, and you can’t do that based upon what other people tell you,” Ross said in an apparent jab at Bryant. “You’ve got to know who you’re working with and what their abilities are and what their philosophies are.”

Bryant, 52, said he’ll choose chairman with honesty and integrity.

“I’m not going to try to be a dictator,” Bryant said. “I won’t sit there in the good ol’ boy Star Chamber and say, ‘This is what I want. Go forth and deliver.’ We’re going to have some working consensus if we can. Now, believe me, the lieutenant governor has to make tough decisions, and I don’t mind making those.”

In a political season when many candidates studiously avoid criticizing other politicians who aren’t their direct opponents, Franks, 34, took the unusual step of naming a name.

“We also need to make sure that we have a chairman of Finance — not Tommy Robertson — somebody that is going to bring out legislation that helps the people of Mississippi,” Franks said.

Robertson, R-Moss Point, has been chairman the past eight years of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax and bond bills.

In 2006, Robertson supported Tuck in her effort to reduce the tax on groceries and increase the tax on cigarettes. Lawmakers passed two bills that year, only to see them vetoed by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

This year, during Tuck’s final session as lieutenant governor, she still supported a cigarette and grocery “tax swap,” and Barbour still opposed it. Robertson, who is seeking re-election, did not bring the bill up for a vote after it passed the House, and it died.

“It bothers me, and I find it quite appalling, when we have the highest sales tax on food of any state in this country and we go to cut it in half and we’re going to do that by raising the tax on cigarettes to $1, and the guy won’t even bring it up,” Franks said.