Jeff Smith has represented Lowndes County in the House of Representatives since 1992. Wednesday, during his appearance at the Kiwanis Club of Columbus at Lion Hills Center, he noted he has just completed his 26th legislative session.
Over the years, he has served on both sides of the aisle, first as a Democrat and now as a Republican. He now holds the position of House Ways and Means chairman, which handles all financial legislation, and, as such, he ranks as one of the most powerful legislators in the state. He is also one of 12 members of the joint legislative budget committee, which sets the state budget each year.
In fact, Smith had to catch himself during his speech at one point when attributing responsibility for a failed bill.
“I started to say the leadership, but I’m pretty much a part of leadership,” he said.
During his 25 years in the House, Smith has never been known as much of a policy-maker. He sponsors relatively few bills. Instead, Smith has established a niche for managing legislation as it weaves through the law-making labyrinth. There are few who know more about how the legislative sausage gets made than Smith.
Finally, he is a lawyer by training and trade and has an attorney’s deft ability to “almost” say something without quite committing himself.
Given that, Smith was about as candid as you’ll ever find him Wednesday.
“I have to sort of pick and choose because if I talked about what we got done this session, I could talk for about 30 seconds,” he said. “If I talked about what we didn’t get done, I’d probably be talking for 30 minutes.”
Coming into the session in January, legislators on both sides of the aisle said their priorities would be developing a new formula for K-12 education, addressing the state’s now-chronic funding shortfalls and funding desperately needed roads/bridges repairs.
When the session ended two weeks ago, not a single one of those issues had been resolved.
Looming most prominently over everything is the budget crisis, something that isn’t lost on Smith, given his role in writing the budget.
“We wound up cutting $171 million from the budget the budget committee passed in the fall,” Smith said. “That original budget is based on revenue projections, but until this March, our revenues had been (below projections) for 15 consecutive months.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Bryant has cut budgets for state agencies five times — for more than $230 million — in the last 18 months. Bryant tries to soften the blow by calling it “belt-tightening.” In truth, it’s more like strangulation.
“My colleague, Gary Chism (R-Columbus) says we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” Smith said. “I think it would be better if the state had a bit more money.”
Two efforts to raise taxes failed — each killed in the opposing chamber.
A law to tax internet sales failed even after the House voted twice to approve it.
“That was really the big fight between the House and the Senate,” Smith said. “We passed it twice. The first time (Lt. Gov.) Tate Reeves said it was unconstitutional — he’s not a lawyer, by the way. So we went back and took out the stuff he objected to and sent it back to the Senate, and they still killed it.”
The second measure, which would have created a state lottery, fell on the House side when Speaker Phillip Gunn refused to allow it to come to a vote after the Senate had passed the measure.
“Our Speaker, right now, doesn’t want us to have a lottery,” Smith said. “We (Republicans) are supposed to meet in July and talk about lottery. I suspect you’re going to see a lottery bill next year. I do know that, if a lottery came to a vote, it would pass.”
It was a frustrating session, Smith said, who pointed the finger at two people — Gunn and Reeves.
“We had a session that was fraught with dissension and some anger between the two chambers,” Smith said, then corrected himself. “Actually it wasn’t so much between the member as it was the bosses.”
Smith said he’s seen the Legislature convene in years where there were big surpluses and years where there were shortfalls.
“It’s sure a lot easier when there are surpluses,” he said. “It’s like my daddy said: Cream rises to the top. In hard times like this, you also see where leadership comes from.”
Like the lawyer he is, Smith left it for his audience to draw its own conclusion.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.