- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Republicans strengthened their hold on Mississippi House leadership positions Friday when Speaker Philip Gunn announced committee members and chairmen for this four-year term.

With the GOP holding a three-fifths majority, Gunn named only two Democrats to lead committees - down from the nine he named last term.

“We just worked very hard to bring conservative leadership to the state, and we had a really good campaign cycle,” said Gunn, R-Clinton. “The people that are in leadership positions now are the ones who helped us get there, who helped buy into the conservative agenda that we think is right for Mississippi.”

The same two Republicans remain in charge of money committees: Rep. Herb Frierson of Poplarville at budget-writing Appropriations, and Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus at tax- and bond-writing Ways and Means.

Other Republicans keeping top-level chairmanships are Rep. John Moore of Brandon on Education, Rep. Nolan Mettetal of Sardis on Universities and Colleges, Rep. Sam Mims of McComb on Public Health, Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon on Judiciary A and Rep. Andy Gipson of Braxton on Judiciary B. The two judiciary committees share responsibility for writing criminal and civil law.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, is the new Transportation chairman. He replaces Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, in that post.

“It just doesn’t make sense to advance a particular agenda and then put the other team in charge of that,” Gunn said when asked about a decrease in Democratic chairmen.

Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, remains chairwoman of the Energy Committee, and Rep. Deborah Butler Dixon, D-Raymond, is the new head of the Youth and Family Affairs Committee.

“They have a general history of supporting the causes that we have advanced,” Gunn said of Cockerham and Dixon.

Cockerham was the only Democrat who voted with Republicans Jan. 20 in a dispute over a House election that originally was certified a tie. The House voted 67-49 to declare Republican challenger Mark Tullos of Raleigh as winner of the District 79 seat. The vote unseated longtime Democratic Rep. Bo Eaton of Taylorsville, who had won a tiebreaker in a drawing of straws overseen by the governor and secretary of state.

Johnson said he was not surprised that Democrats were appointed to few leadership posts this term.

“It’s a Republican House, totally. We’ll see where it goes,” said Johnson, who remains a member of Transportation. “The state still needs good roads, and we need them urgently in the Delta and in southwest Mississippi.”

Republican Rep. Toby Barker of Hattiesburg was appointed chairman of the newly created Performance Based Budgeting Committee, which will evaluate the efficiency of state spending. Barker was already working on that process last term.

“I think it could be one of the most influential committees in the long term, if we can change the culture,” Barker said.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus

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This story has been corrected to show that there were nine Democratic committee chairmen, not six, in the previous term.

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