Hewes Fizzles, Senate Sizzles, As Reorganization Debated

While Sen. Billy Hewes’ bill to reorganize school districts fizzled, a bill by Sen. Briggs Hopson to streamline state agency operations sizzled.

A few weeks ago I noted how unusual it is for major candidates in an election year to take on controversial legislation. I pointed to Hewes, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and his bill to implement recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on Mississippi Educational Structure to limit counties to one school district.

“It will be worth watching,” I wrote, “to see if Hewes, and any others, get curtain calls for persevering support of such measures.”

Catcalls are more appropriate. Hewes, the powerful President Pro Tem of the Senate couldn’t get his bill out of committee, while freshman Senator Hopson not only got his out of committee, but passed by the full Senate 33 to 18.

Hopson’s bill would force all “state agencies” by 2015 to use one, statewide “shared services center” for accounting, human resources, payroll, etc.

Now, Hopson’s bill, as written, is unlikely to survive in the House. It’s too broad, unfunded, and agency heads are given no recourse if the new center fails to provide adequate services.

Thus, it looks more like a political bill than a real effort to streamline government. But, the politics are fascinating. Rather than push Hewes’ bill, which would have died in the House too, the Senate pushed Hopson’s bill.

Maybe agency reorganization is more politically popular than school reorganization. But, look a little deeper, and you’ll find Hopson’s bill would not only include agencies like the Departments of Health, Medicaid, and Human Services but also the College Board and its universities, the National Guard and its units, and far more than you might imagine.

That’s because the bill defines “state agency” as “any state board, commission, committee, council, department or unit thereof created by the Constitution or statutes if such board, commission, committee, council, department, unit or the head thereof, is authorized to appoint subordinate staff by the Constitution or statute, including a legislative or judicial board, commission, committee, council, department or unit thereof.”

The political force behind Hopson’s bill, and others of this ilk, is long-time Republican Senator Terry Brown. As chairman of the Fees, Salaries and Administration Committee he not only pushed Hopson’s bill through, but also his own bill to exempt for two years from Personnel Board oversight agency directors’ authority to cut employees.

Both government reorganization and agency directors’ authority to reduce staff have been proposed by Governor Haley Barbour as key initiatives to prune kudzu-like government.

It’s stimulating to see Senators with the gumption to give bills like this time in the spotlight with vigorous debate and news coverage. Dare the House at least debate them?

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