Reeves taps bi-partisan panels’ chiefs

Published 10:42 pm Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves reached across boundaries of party, geography and race on Friday as he announced Mississippi Senate committee assignments for the new four-year term.

While fellow Republicans will chair the two money committees and those overseeing schools, universities and public health, Democrats were given significant assignments, including leadership of panels responsible for highways and prisons. A Republican will chair one Judiciary committee, and a Democrat will chair the other.

“We need to move beyond our divisions of the past and recognize that the best legislation (that) is going to come out of this building to move Mississippi forward will be legislation that is passed in which every member has an opportunity for input, every single member,” said Reeves, who was elected statewide in November and was sworn in Thursday as presiding officer of the 52-member Senate.

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The committee assignments are crucial because chairmen have the power to decide which bills advance or die.

Newly elected House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he hopes to release that chamber’s committee assignments by about Jan. 13.

Reeves, of Flowood, served two terms as state treasurer. He faced no Democratic opposition in the open race for lieutenant governor last year, but had a tough Republican primary against longtime Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport — a contest that divided many of the GOP senators.

Reeves chose two Republicans who supported him during the 2011 campaign to lead the money committees. Third-term Sen. Buck Clarke of Hollandale, who’s a certified public accountant, will be chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall, an attorney, will chair the Finance Committee, which handles taxes, fees and bond bills. Fillingane served in the House from 2000 to 2006 and has been in the Senate since 2007.

“They’re both quality, capable, competent people,” Reeves said.

Second-term Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, will chair the Judiciary A Committee, and eighth-term Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, will chair Judiciary B Committee. Each is an attorney. The two committees handle a wide variety of bills, including changes to criminal laws and proposals to restrict abortion, immigration and other acts.

Five-term Sen. Gray Tollison of Oxford, who switched from Democrat to Republican after he was re-elected in November, will chair the Education Committee. Sixth-term Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, will chair the Universities and Colleges Committee.

Sixth-term Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, will chair the Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Third-term Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, was given one of the most contentious assignments, as chairman of the Legislative Reapportionment committee

“It means everyone’s going to hate my guts in about eight weeks,” Flowers said.

Legislators argued for weeks during the 2011 session about how to redraw the 122 state House districts and 52 Senate districts to account for population changes revealed by the 2010 Census. The session ended without agreement because Republican leaders of the Senate and Democratic leaders of the House disagreed on how much say each chamber should have in drawing the other’s districts. Republicans now control both chambers, having taken the House majority from Democrats in the November elections.

Six-term Sen. Sampson Jackson, D-Preston, will chair the Corrections Committee, and six-term Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, will head Highways and Transportation. They’re both members of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Nancy Loome, who lobbies for public education as leader of The Parents Campaign, said she’s satisfied with the committee assignments, particularly with Tollison as chairman of Education.

“He has a very balanced slate of chairmen,” Loome said.

Clarke said he will try to meet the deadlines for appropriations bills, which were repeatedly broken in recent years, and he expects help from the new Republican majority in the House.