While Delbert Hosemann is learning about his new duties and responsibilities as lieutenant governor and Tate Reeves is moving into the Governor’s Mansion, Philip Gunn will be starting his third term as speaker of the Mississippi House.
Gunn, a Clinton Republican, is poised to be selected by members for a third term as speaker when the House convenes Jan. 7.
The positions of governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House are generally regarded as the three most powerful in state government. The speaker has one distinct advantage over the other two positions. There is no limit on how long the speaker can serve.
The governor is limited to serving two terms. The lieutenant governor is limited to serving two consecutive terms. Technically, a person can serve two terms as lieutenant governor and then run and serve again after a four-year hiatus, though, no one has ever done that. Before the Constitution was changed in 1987, the governor could serve only one term. Most believe the fact that the governor can now serve two terms has greatly increased the power of the post.
But many also believe that the lack of term limits allows the speaker to consolidate power in a manner that the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and the governor cannot. After all, the real power a presiding officer has is what he or she can do to a member in the future. A presiding officer constrained by term limits has less of a hammer.
Maybe that is why Gunn could pass in his chamber last term the controversial legislation to change the funding formula in a manner to guarantee less state funds to local school districts, but Reeves could not pass it out of the Senate where he presides. By the time the controversial bill was considered, Reeves was already a lame duck lieutenant governor.
Interestingly, in 1987, in a watershed occurrence in Mississippi politics, the state House voted to curtail the power of third-term Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman. Among the rules changes adopted in that historic House vote was a two-term limit on a House member serving as speaker.
With those new rules in place, in 1988 House members elected Tim Ford, a young attorney from northeast Mississippi serving portions of Prentiss and Lee counties, as their new speaker. Ford’s second term as speaker had not reached the halfway point before House members reconsidered their term limits on the speaker and rescinded the rule by a 76-43 vote.
At the time Ford told the press that the genesis for removing the term limits came from the membership, not from him and he was not trying to influence how House members voted on the issue.
“I have really tried to stay out of it,” Ford said.
Former House Appropriations Chair Charlie Capps of Cleveland, a cigar smoking white-haired Delta power broker, introduced the proposal to remove the term limits. It should be pointed out Capps was one of Ford’s lieutenants.
“We are already operating with a lame duck speaker,” Capps argued at the time. “There are members who aspire to be speaker and are undertaking various activities to form support. I think for continuity and consistency, we need to take this cloud off the House.”
But then-Rep. Eric Clark, of Taylorsville, who was one of the leaders of the rules change initiative that curtailed Newman’s power and who later served as secretary of state, argued, “If the speaker has unlimited tenure, he creates a political machine. That is not healthy. The House will be moving in the direction that the House answers to the speaker and not the people of Mississippi.”
Coincidentally, the House voted to remove the term limits on the speaker shortly after first term Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs pushed through the Legislature a measure that was ultimately approved by voters to place term limits on the office of lieutenant governor. House members made no secret of the fact that one of the reasons that they opted to remove the term limits on the speaker is that they saw an opportunity, after the term limits were placed on the lieutenant governor, for their side to gain an advantage in the ongoing power struggle that takes place under the Capitol dome by having a presiding officer who was not term limited.
Ford, of course, went on to serve four terms as the speaker of the Mississippi House. Only the legendary Walter Sillers, who is the namesake for the state’s tallest office building, served longer – from 1944 until 1966.
Perhaps it is unlikely that Gunn will serve longer but under the rules of the Mississippi House he can.
BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.