The Good Ole Boys Club Prevails: Mississippi Legislature
By D.O. Bell
Vol. 3, No. 2, 1981, pp. 12-13
0nce questioned about the odd language used by lawyers in drafting legal documents, a law professor at Oxford, Mississippi, listened to a law student contending that legal pleadings use archaic terms and the style should be modernized. The professor tongue-in-cheek replied, “What we need are not more modern pleadings; what we need are more archaic law students.”
This theory of “legal reform” did apply for many years to the Mississippi legislature where pleas for more progressive legislation were met by the addition of more reactionary legislators. However, a growing number of persons with bright minds and a view to Mississippi’s future, not its past, now occupy seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives. There are seventeen Black lawmakers, fifteen more than in 1979, primarily due to court-ordered reapportionment. In addition to long-time Black leaders Aaron Henry and Henry Kirksey, the Black caucus boasts well-groomed newcomers such as Hillman Frazier, a George Washington University Law School graduate and former legislative draftsman, as well as Jackson attorney Fred Banks. A new wave of White legislators, including Ivy League educated Gerald Blessey, Jackson’s Ed Ellington, and Dennis Dollar of the Gulf Coast, is striving to move Mississippi forward.
The Mississippi legislature, nevertheless, remains in the clutches of “the ole boys club.” Black gains still leave minority representation at about ten percent in a state which is thirty-eight percent Black. Of the entire legislature’s one hundred and seventy-four members, there is but one woman.
Despite new blood, the Mississippi legislature is still not the place to go for fast action. Very little legislation of any signigicance gets as far as the floor. As one lobbyist put it, “It’s easier to block bad legislation than it is to get good legislation passed.”
The 1981 Mississippi legislature looks to be carrying on that standard. Early in the session, which began January 6th and will close March 31st, the Speaker of the House, C.B. “Buddie” Newman, requested members to read and consider the legislation assigned to their committees. He then added that “sometimes we help people more by what we don’t do,” but that he did think that the bills should be read.
Speaker Newman, a Delta farmer, holds immense power by having control over committee assignments. A telling, if inconsequential example, of his dominance, drew laughter from the gallery and took place a few minutes before a joint session in January. The senators were late getting into the House chamber. A motion was made to delay the session until they had time to get in. “All in favor say ‘aye,'” the Speaker said. No one bothered. “All opposed say ‘no.’ “A chorus of goodnatured “No!” rang out. “The ‘ayes’ have it,” the Speaker concluded and retired to wait for the senators.
Gathered into what was once Jackson’s Central High School, which has been remodeled to accommodate the legislature while the $18 million renovation of the capitol takes place a block away, this year’s legislature has heard and heard again that the state is in financial straits, that there is little money for new or expanded programs. In spite of this warning, the medicaid bill, which had been given much attention by the press, has already passed. Had this appropriations bill not been enacted, the Medicaid Commission would have had to cut services to patients due to a budget deficit.
Governor William Winter, whom many view as the most able chief executive in the state’s history, has placed education at the top of his priority list. His bill to provide for the establishment and funding of public kindergartens, something Mississippi has never had, is still alive and given a good chance of survival. The compulsory school attendance bill, repealed in the 1950s, will not be reinstated this session as the governor had wanted. Governor Winter has also stressed the development of forestry products and methods of handling industrial wastes.
Mississippi remains one of only six states that does not have either court decision or statute requiring landlords to comply with minimum housing standards. This legal protection for tenants will not be granted again this year. The bill was not voted out of committee by February 5th, the deadline for committees to send legislation to the full House. The Fair Pulpwood Sealing and Practices Act, designed to attack some of the problems of the state’s estimated 10,000 pulpwood cutters and haulers, bled to death after being gutted by the Ways and Means committee. Some progressive
measures dealing with jail conditions, domestic abuse, and accountability of state schools for the deaf and blind remain under consideration. A bill calling for open business and meetings of state boards has a good chance of passage.
But no other real reform measures seem likely to be pushed through this session. Those who look to the Mississippi legislature for modern reform may look back in the spring and conclude, in the words of Leonard PenthDarnel, television’s “Saturday Night Live” and former host of Bad Opera, “There, that wasn’t so good, now was it.”
D.O. Bell is a staff member of the Southern Regional Council’s Southern Project for Fair, Open Government.