February 25, 2013 9:36:51 AM
JACKSON -- There's no such title as minority leader in the Mississippi Senate.
"We're too disorganized," jokes Sen. Hob Bryan.
But the Amory Democrat can be considered his party's Senate chief, anyway. Bryan has been leading the Senate effort to expand Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care law, and he managed to get a bill out of the chamber that at least kept that possibility open.
Of course, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, had the bill killed in the Rules Committee, leaving lawmakers without an obvious way to reauthorize Medicaid. The state law governing the federal-state insurance program expires June 30, although some say Gov. Phil Bryant could run it by executive order.
Bryan, an attorney, is the second longest-serving senator, his 30 years trailing only Biloxi Republican Tommy Gollott's 46-year legislative tenure. Bryan attributes his effectiveness not to partisanship, but to its opposite, saying Republicans were so scarce that party mattered little when he first arrived in Jackson.
"In my ideal world, the Senate would operate on a nonpartisan basis and to the extent we have remnants of that, I think we should preserve that," Bryan said. "I would like very much for legislators to think for themselves. I think it's counterproductive if every single vote is seen as a partisan issue."
His Medicaid push has been tolerated by Republicans, including Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.
"I'm certainly not going to do anything as a subcommittee chair that Senator Kirby is telling me not to do" Bryan said.
On the other hand, Bryan spoke against Sen. John Horhn's attempt in committee to amend the Senate Medicaid bill to expand it, telling the Jackson Democrat that the time wasn't right.
Bryan has threaded the Medicaid needle with only 20 Democrats in what's currently a 51-member Senate. A vacant seat held by the late Sen. Alice Harden, a Jackson Democrat, is likely to be filled by a Democrat after a Tuesday runoff.
Even with 21 members, Democrats are deep in the minority. On tax legislation that requires a three-fifths vote, they can only defeat it if they all stick together.
Strangely, being far outnumbered may make Bryan more effective, because Democrats are less a threat. In the House, with its narrower gap, Democrats seem to have less sway.
"The House Democrats feel like they have nothing to lose," Bryan said.
That may contribute to the House's fractious atmosphere, although it has traditionally had a more pugnacious culture than the Senate.
Maybe more important for Bryan is that Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves decided he wasn't going to treat Democrats like potted plants when he took office in January 2012.
That's in part because Reeves faced a factional divide between senators who supported him for lieutenant governor in the GOP primary and those who supported then-Sen. Billy Hewes of Gulfport, a Bryant ally.
Bryan says his interactions with Reeves are "frank and straightforward and basically friendly."
In part because Reeves named Democrats to run a number of committees, he has won at least a modicum of cooperation. That doesn't mean that Bryan isn't loudly opposing charter schools or business tax breaks. But because top Democrats aren't frozen out, they're not out fighting Reeves at every moment.
In exchange, Senate Democrats occasionally get something they want. That can be seen not only in Bryan's efforts on Medicaid. For example, the upper chamber has backed an effort by Senate Public Property Committee Chairman David Blount, D-Jackson, to move the state Department of Revenue to downtown Jackson, even while Gunn is trying to keep the tax collection agency in Clinton.