Here and There

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why

*First appeared in the Dec. 4, 2014 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

‘Tis the season once again for the legislative session. Next month, the 2015 Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature will convene. The specific date and time is noon on January 6. That’s precisely 36 days from the time I am writing this column – but who’s counting?

Last year in this space, I gave you a preview of the people, places, politics, and policies of the Capitol. This year I’ll attempt to provide you with more context as we approach the session, a.k.a. the “sesh” to some very cool Capitol workers.

Since I haven’t seen much writing out there about committees, I’ll do my best to introduce you to legislative committees: The who, what, where, and why.

First, a short primer on how committees operate: The head of each chamber (that’s the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker in the House of Representatives) must assign every single bill to a committee. After the bill has been “referred” (as it is called) to a committee, then that bill becomes property of the committee. The committee, controlled by the chairman, must decide what to do with the bill: Bring it up for a vote? Assign it to a subcommittee? Or do nothing and let it die?

After a bill is passed out of committee, it then goes to the full chamber for a vote. Usually, the committee chairman will handle the bill on the floor, explaining what it does and urging the members to vote for it.

As you can see, committee chairmen have a lot of power in the Mississippi Legislature – so if your business takes you before the Legislature, you’d be wise to study up on your chairmen and your committees.

Committees are like mobile apps. If you’ve got an idea for government, or a specific complaint, or want some taxpayer funding, well, there’s a committee for that. You want to change our turkey season? Think: Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Committee. Want to promote downtown development through a state-funded grant? Think: Appropriations Committee. You want Jones County to become its own state? Think again.

The House of Representatives and the State Senate each have their own committees. Some have the same names (both houses have Education Committees, for example), but others have different names. The House manages its finance-related issues through the Ways and Means Committee – which is also known as the “ways to be mean” committee. On the other hand, the Senate handles its finance issues through the aptly named Finance Committee.

I’ll highlight several of the larger committees for your reading pleasure.

Some of my favorite committees are the money committees. Those include: House Appropriations, Senate Appropriations, House Ways and Means, and Senate Finance.

All taxpayer funds appropriated for a specific purpose – such as funding for a state agency – are handled through appropriations committees in each house. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Herb Frierson, a Republican from Poplarville. The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman is Sen. Buck Clarke, a Republican from Hollandale. (By the way, Chairman Clarke is sometimes referred to as the “Gentleman Farmer” because of his Delta lineage. It’s one of my favorite nicknames at the Capitol.)

On the House side, this committee meets in Room 201-A; on the Senate side, appropriations meets in Room 216, which is also the old Supreme Court room.

The other big money committees are those that handle finance issues. Whereas appropriations committees handle spending of funds, these committees handle incoming revenues.

The House Ways and Means Committee is chaired by Rep. Jeff Smith, a Republican from Columbus; this group meets in Room 201-B. The Senate Finance Committee is chaired by Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, and it also meets in Room 216. (You’ll notice that South Mississippi fares pretty well in terms of money committee chairmenships.)

The newest committees to be formed are those that look at government reform issues. Both chambers have similar committees called “Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency” which oversee a litany of issues: technology initiatives, good government ideas, pay raises, and many others. These committees serve as a sort of catch-all during the session. I have had the opportunity to work closely with Sen. Nancy Collins, a Republican from Tupelo who chairs the Senate’s AET committee. She’s one of the most reform-minded senators in the Mississippi Legislature – and that’s good news for John Q. Taxpayer.

Energy is a big item for families and, as it turns out, for state government. Both legislative bodies have an energy committee, which oversees issues related to oil and gas and Public Service Commission regulations, among others. My uncle and Jones County native Rep. Gary Staples serves as vice chairman of the House Energy Committee. This is particularly helpful for the Free State, since oil and gas is a big economic driver in the Pine Belt area.

Other committees important to the Pine Belt include those dealing with agriculture, community and junior colleges, education, and county affairs. In fact, Jones County Rep. Bobby Shows serves as Chairman of the House County Affairs committee, which handles local issues dealing with supervisors, county purchases, land transfers, and other issues.

Want a full listing of the various legislative committees? Check out www.legislature.ms.gov.

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