JACKSON — The Republican-dominated Mississippi Senate announced its 41 committee chairs at the beginning of the session and one surprise is how many Democrats were named to lead committees.

The Senate has 36 Republicans and 16 Democrats, but 12 of the Democrats have committee chairmanships. This means that 75 percent of Democrats hold chairmanships in the Senate while only 80.5 percent of Republicans hold chairmanships.

By comparison, the 2019 Senate comprised 32 Republicans and 20 Democrats with 39 committees. Twelve Democrats held chairmanships (60 percent) compared to 29 Republicans (84.4 percent). 

These numbers, of course, do not tell the entire story as some chairmanships are more powerful than others. In 2019, Democrats held important chairmanships in Corrections, Transportation, and Judiciary B. In 2020, Democrats will control Corrections, Gaming, and Public Health and Welfare.

Chairmen are important in the legislative process because they act as gatekeepers for legislation. If a chairman doesn’t support a bill, he or she can keep it off the committee’s agenda. Conversely, a chairman can push a bill to send it to the floor for a vote by the full chamber. 

Using legislation authored by the new chairmen in past sessions and utilizing an annual rating of legislatures by the American Conservative Union (ACU), one can make an educated guess on what measures are likely to make it out of committees for a floor vote. 

The ACU graded Mississippi legislators on their votes on 21 measures, which included: landowner protection, the Heartbeat bill, funding for the Board of Cosmetology and funding for public television, among other issues. 

In the Senate, the overall average rating was 46 percent, with Republicans averaging 54 percent and Democrats 32 percent. For the new chairmen, the average Republican earned a 53.32 percent rating, while the average Democrat was a 29.42 percent.

Public Health and Welfare

State Sen. Hob Bryan (D-Amory) was appointed to chair this committee, which handled bills related to everything from physician and nurse licensure, child protective services, certificate of need, and even food service.

Bryan has been in the Senate since 1984 and was chairman of the Judiciary B Committee in the last cycle.

One piece of legislation that could be handled by his committee is a Medicaid expansion bill that would expand Medicaid eligibility to able-bodied, working-age adults who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty level. This Medicaid expansion is a key piece of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Bryan authored similar legislation last year and it died in the Medicaid Committee.

Bills are referred to committee by chamber leadership, in this case, the Lt. Governor. The committee assignment for any Medicaid expansion bill would be a critical indicator on whether it is supported by leadership.

Bryan scored a 40 percent in 2019 and has a lifetime rating of 36 percent from the ACU. The average Democrat score was 32 percent. He has authored bills in the past that would’ve require mandatory, comprehensive eye exams for students entering kindergarten or the first grade, would’ve forced financial institutions to adopt policies to detect transactions related to Iran or terrorism and would’ve ended the phaseout of franchise tax and one state income tax bracket passed in 2015. Most didn’t survive the committee process.

Finance

State Sen. Josh Harkins (R-Flowood) chairs this committee, which deals with bonds, taxes, incentives, exemptions, the minimum wage, and alcoholic beverage control issues. Along with the Transportation Committee, this committee would play a big role in any possible gas tax increase at the state level or a possible local option gas tax proposal. 

In 2019, Harkins authored the Landowner Protection Act, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Phil Bryant and reduces the liability for property owners for injuries that occur on their property. He also previously authored Right to Try, which provides terminally ill patients with access to experimental therapies.

Harkins scored a 52 percent grade from the American Conservative Union, while the average Republican score was 54 percent. 

Judiciary Committees

Like the House, the Senate has two judiciary committees named Division A and Division B. They deal with legal issues, including criminal justice reform and other issues facing the judiciary system. While there has been a division of workload where one committee handled strictly criminal issues and the other handled civil issues, it’s unknown if the new Senate leadership will continue this practice.

Division A is chaired by state Sen. Sally Doty (R-Brookhaven), who received a 52 percent score from the ACU. In 2018, she authored a bill that would’ve allowed public and private nonprofit hospitals to collect debts using the state Department of Revenue to garnish income tax refunds from debtors.

She has also worked on legislation that expanded SNAP (food stamp) benefits to drug dealers/users and that sought to create a comprehensive sex-ed program for children in public school. 

State Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) will chair the other judiciary committee. He received a 48 percent grade from the ACU.

Wiggins wrote a “red flag” bill that would’ve allowed judges to issue orders to restrain a person’s right to possess firearms. It died in committee.

He also authored a bill that would’ve expanded the definition of a gang member and increased fines for gang members convicted of a felony. Under Wiggins’ bill, they would’ve also been prohibited form parole or any early release program. It died in committee.

Education

State Sen. Dennis Debar (R-Leakesville) takes over the Education Committee. One of the biggest issues facing the committee will be the reauthorization of the state’s Education Scholarship Account program, which will end this year without legislative action.

Debar, who was in the House at the time, voted for both the Charter Schools Act of 2013 and the original ESA bill in 2015. He also voted to renew the ESA program last year. That passed the Senate, but died in the House Education Committee. 

He earned a 48 percent grade from the ACU.

Steve Wilson is the investigative editor for the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. Reach him at wilson@mspolicy.org.