JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi legislators last week ended their 2016 session, their first gathering of a four-year term. With 122 members in the House and 52 in the Senate, a few stood out from the crowd.
— Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, sports a Pringles-man moustache and often wears spats — old-fashioned shoe covers most likely seen nowadays on marching band musicians. A House member since 1992, Smith is an attorney and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax and bond bills. During the 2016 session, he often gave opaque descriptions of what bills would do. And, he was one of the main people who pushed to kill a reform bill that would have prohibited elected officials from spending campaign cash on personal expenses. Smith's disclosure forms show he has spent campaign money on banks, insurance and golf.
— First-year Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, is an attorney who handled one of the most visible assignments of the session. During a lengthy Senate debate on House Bill 1523, she explained the bill and answered questions from colleagues. The measure, which becomes law July 1, will allow government and business workers to cite their own religious objections to same-sex marriage to deny services to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
— Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, has been in the House since 2008 and is chairman of the Judiciary B Committee. An attorney and minister of a small Baptist church, Gipson is an outspoken Second Amendment advocate. He promoted House Bill 786, which allows houses of worship to designate members to undergo firearms training to protect the congregation. It became law when Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed it April 15.
— Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, is an attorney who has been in the House since 2004, but he practically grew up in the Capitol. His father, Democratic Rep. Robert Clark, was the first African-American elected to the Mississippi Legislature in modern times, in 1967. A widower, Robert Clark often brought his sons to the Capitol. Bryant Clark has fought consolidation of the Durant and Holmes County school districts, a merger many of his constituents oppose. He lost the battle to the Republican supermajority this year, but protested by putting a procedural hold on an unrelated bill the day legislative leaders were hoping to end the session. That forced the House back the Capitol an extra day after the Senate departed.
— Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, is a real estate broker who has been in office since 2012. He sponsored Senate Bill 2162, which expands the board of Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport. The current five-member board is appointed by Mayor Tony Yarber. It will be replaced by a nine-member board: State officials and two suburban counties will appoint a majority, but five of nine members will have to live in Jackson. Yarber and other Jackson officials oppose the change, and the current board chairwoman, Rosie L.T. Pridgen, says a lawsuit could be filed to try to block it.
— Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, is an attorney who has been in the House since 2004. He led a committee that recommended overturning the result of a 2015 House election that had been decided by drawing straws as a tiebreaker. The Republican-led House unseated longtime Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton, who won the tiebreaker, and replaced him with Republican challenger Mark Tullos. Baker's committee said the election never should have been tied because some votes were improperly counted. Some Eaton supporters recently filed a federal lawsuit saying they were disenfranchised.
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .