State Senator's answer to budget crisis: shrink legislature

By Sylvia Hall – bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - As the state legislature struggles to make deep budget cuts, State Senator Michael Watson hopes some cuts come from within.

"Looking at the budget issue, we understand there's going to be a crunch," Watson said.  "You know, we're talking about school district consolidation, governmental agency consolidation and making cuts across the board. But nobody has ever really said, 'What about the legislature?' We need to look at ourselves as well."

Mississippi's legislature currently has 174 members, 122 representatives and 52 senators as drawn out in the Mississippi Code of 1972. Watson has drafted a bill that would cut the total number to 100. The House of Representatives would be reduced to 70 members and the Senate to 30. Watson hopes to make the cuts alongside the redistricting he said will be eminent following the 2010 census.

"There's been some population shifts in the state, so there's going to be new districts anyway across the state," Watson said. "So I think it works out well, since we're going to have to redistrict anyway. This is the perfect time for a reduction in the legislature."

Watson said before he drafted the bill, he researched other state legislatures and determined Mississippi's per capita representation was above the national average.

"There are again 52 Senators, 122 Representatives; there are only 82 counties," Watson said. "That's 174 people representing that many people. And I think if we consolidated that down to a smaller number, the districts would of course grow, but again, that's still a whole lot of folks for only 2.9 million people [in Mississippi]."

Unlike many other proposals sitting in the legislature, Watson's would not go into effect immediately, but instead would wait until the next election cycle.

"This is a long term solution," Watson said. "People right now would have to understand it's not just now we need to focus on. We need to focus on our problems now with a vision for the future as well. So when you talk about these things with the budget in the legislature, we need to make sure we stick to our guns."

Jackson County residents like Harris Hardy seemed to support his proposal.

"It's a hard thing to do to take a hit and give up the power, but this country's based on equity and fair play," Hardy said. "And good citizenship requires that the legislature always try to do what's right for the people."

Jackson County resident Charlyn Newman agreed consolidation should be considered.

"I just think it's a good place to start," Newman said. "Whether it's good or bad, I'm not sure, but I think it's a good place to start."

Watson said he's ready for the added challenge of running and serving in a bigger district, and he hopes his peers are, as well.

"We're hard workers here in Mississippi, and I think we could find a way to make it work," said Watson.

If Watson's bill passes into law, voters will elect the reduced legislature in 2011. They will be seated in 2012.

Copyright 2010 WLOX. All rights reserved.