By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON â€” Mississippi lawmakers are off to a leisurely start for the 2012 session, to the frustration of many members â€” especially freshmen who came to Jackson with big ideas to change the world.
The pace could pick up soon because the bill filing deadline is Feb. 20 and committees are organized to work.
Legislators usually meet four months during the first year of a term, from early January to early May. Thatâ€™s the case this year because leaders never entertained a proposal to shorten the time at the Capitol.
For the final three years, each session is scheduled for three months, from early January to early April.
Legislators were elected in November and inaugurated Jan. 3. The first substantial piece of legislation from either chamber was passed in the House last Thursday. That was one day shy of the sessionâ€™s one-month mark.
The exceptionally slow start was predictable in many ways. This year marks the first time since 1976 for Mississippi to get a new governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker all at once, and the new officials needed time to get their teams in place.
Most of the sessionâ€™s first month was devoted to organizational matters, training for new lawmakers and schmoozing.
Dozens of interest groups, from health care providers to marine biologists, have had Capitol days to greet lawmakers and share information about their programs. Along with brochures, groups frequently give away cookies, candy and inexpensive tchotchkes â€” flimsy plastic firefightersâ€™ hats from the fire chiefs association, tiny foam astronauts from NASA.
Legislatorsâ€™ social calendars have been full of prayer breakfasts, public policy luncheons and open-bar receptions for those who choose to partake.
In mid-January, the Gulf Coast hosted its annual all-the-seafood-you-can-handle reception that attracted an estimated 2,000 people to the Mississippi Trade Mart about a mile from the Capitol. Lawmakers have had breakfast with the Mississippi Economic Council, lunch with the hospital association, hors dâ€™oeuvres with the municipal league and dinner with the press association. Many have attended the formal inaugural galas for Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the blue-jeans-and-boots party held this past week to honor House Speaker Philip Gunn.
Reeves knew months in advance that heâ€™d be lieutenant governor, and that gave him plenty of time to decide who heâ€™d appoint to Senate committees. He won a tough Republican primary last August, and that essentially gave him the job. Democrats didnâ€™t field a candidate, and Reeves had only nominal opposition in November from a Reform Party candidate.
Reeves was inaugurated Jan. 5 and announced his committee chairmen and members the next day.
Gunn had a longer wait to become speaker, and it took him longer to make his committee appointments.
In the Nov. 8 general election, the GOP won control of the Mississippi House for the first time since Reconstruction. House Republicans met several days later and chose Gunn as preferred candidate for speaker. Gunn didnâ€™t get the speakerâ€™s gavel until the full House elected him, without opposition, on the sessionâ€™s opening day. He announced committee appointments Jan. 20.
The bill that passed the House last Thursday, dubbed the Child Protection Act, is supported by Gunn, Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant. It would put new requirements on abortion providers and spell out whoâ€™s required to report suspected cases of child sexual abuse â€” reports that are already required in current law.
Gunn says the House will deal this week with another Republican priority, a bill that would limit the attorney generalâ€™s power to hire private attorneys to work for the state. The current attorney general, Jim Hood, is the only Democrat left in statewide office.