January 25, 2012 11:36:00 AM
When Calisolar announced its intention to open a plant in Columbus, people from across the state might have thought: what, them again? Envy is one of the byproducts of success, and when it comes to big industrial projects no other part of the state has been more successful in recent years than Lowndes County. But, as with most industrial projects these days, the state legislature passed an economic package to incentivize Calisolar's arrival. Getting this package passed required navigation through treacherous political waters, water full of waves ready to crash it.
Luckily, the recent appointments of Sen. Terry W. Brown and Rep. Jeff C. Smith mean Columbus will have a hand in steering the ship for the next four years. Brown, a state senator since 2003, was selected by Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves to be senate president pro tempore. This position makes Brown second in command in the senate, and means he presides over it in the lieutenant governor's absence.
More important than this, though, is what the appointment says about Brown's relationship with Reeves. The lieutenant governor is arguably the most powerful elected official in the state. The governor's office is historically weak because it mostly comes with the power to veto bills and call and set the agenda for special sessions. (Gov. Barbour, as almost universally noted, was the glaring exception to this rule). And, while able to appoint the chairman for each house committee, the Speaker is elected by a majority of the house members, which means he or she has to lobby those members for power and is accountable to them.
The Lieutenant governor, on the other hand, is able to appoint the chairman of the senate committees based on senate procedural rules and tradition. (Some people argue that the senators should change this rule and allow the members to select a leader). So, he or she doesn't have to lobby members for power and has more freedom than the speaker to select chairmen based on his or her own personal and political judgment. Reeves, a newcomer to the legislative arena after eight years as treasurer, will inevitably need advice about the lawmaking process; Brown's appointment as president pro tempore puts him in Reeves' inner circle.
On the house side, Columbus Rep. Jeff Smith was recently appointed chairman of the House Ways and Means committee. Smith, a member of the legislature for 20 years, was one vote from being elected speaker in 2008. Since then, he switched to the Republican Party and was one of the candidates for speaker amongst the newly formed Republican majority in 2012. Even though the Republicans selected Rep. Philip Gunn, the speaker still appointed Rep. Smith to chair one of the two money committees in the House. This will benefit Columbus on important issues like bond packages.
With all the talk about how partisan politics is it can be easy to forget the regional interests that intersect and diverge at the capitol. But debates about what area of the state gets what bond projects or what county gets what industrial project often transcend party lines and make for strange political bedfellows. For example, for most of Mississippi's history, the regional battle between Delta farmers and north Mississippi hillside folks was one of the toughest political battles in the state.
Because of Lowndes County's success in attracting large industrial projects, any new projects would inevitably face criticism and opposition. This may make it harder for the county to continue to get the state support needed for these large projects. Officials from other parts of the state would yell, "Why not us?" and "Haven't they gotten enough jobs recently?" Yet, with Smith and Brown in such powerful positions in the Legislature, those complaints may fall on deaf ears.
Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is [email protected]
Scott Colom is a local attorney.
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