Former House leader blasts Republicans

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Mississippi is a small state where people are closely connected. I got to know Bo Eaton because my wife Ginny “used to rock me to sleep” as his babysitter in Taylorsville, Miss.

Not so long ago, Bo was one of the most powerful Democratic state representatives, a protege of former House Speaker Billy McCoy. He headed several powerful committees and subcommittees, having served for 20 years.

In 2016, he faced the surging power of the Republican Party and tied with his opponent Mark Tullos. In accordance with state law, they drew straws and Eaton won.

Not happy with the result, the Republican Legislature threw out nine affidavit ballots and seated Tullos anyway. It was a blatant power play by the Republicans. Seven of the nine voters filed suit and won in Judge Carlton Reeve’s federal district court. The result is now being appealed by the Republicans in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Eaton may well be back in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Eaton is refurbishing used diesel trucks, hauling stuff and making a living. Grilling steaks on his back porch in Smith County, it was clear politics was still in his blood. He leveled some scathing criticisms of the new Republican dominance.

— Concentration of power in the hands of staffers rather than legislators.

Eaton faults the current House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves with centralizing power and gutting the traditional committee process. Instead of committee chairmen being independent, policy is set at the top by unelected staffers in closed meetings. It is a criticism I have heard from many legislative insiders in both parties.

Eaton says, “It’s centralized and the rank and file senators and representatives don’t have a chance. I’ve got all kinds of Republican friends. They’re just there. They’ve changed the rules. They meet in caucuses behind closed doors and tell the members how they’re going to vote. So what good is a committee meeting?”

— Failure to expand Medicaid. “We are the unhealthiest state in the nation. They could have expanded Medicaid using federal money, creating 20,000 jobs for nurses, nurse practitioners, doctors, x-ray technicians. The hospitals could have survived. Now they’re going to end up closing hospitals and people are going to get less health care. And people who have insurance are paying more because of uncompensated care when these people would have been eligible for federal Medicaid. They’re blaming that on the Democrats but it’s the Republicans who are doing it to them. People are moving to states where they can get better health care. These are working people who make $1,500 a month.

— Cutting education. “The members of the Legislature in the early nineties put their political life on the line and raised the sales tax from six to seven percent, creating revenue in this state for some basic needs, mainly public education. The first thing they did when Fordice came in was to squander that on private prisons and it started a drain on the revenue. Now this new group is cutting taxes for the campaign contributors, multinational corporations and banks to the tune of 400 million dollars and they can’t even pay the bills they have right now. They say they are cutting government but the truth is they’re cutting education and raising college tuition 48 percent as classroom size goes up. They are just shifting the tax burden to the counties and cities.”

— Failure to maintain our transportation system. “We have 3,000 deficient bridges. They can’t fund a depleting program that the Democrats began in 1987. The program is gone. Inflation has eaten it up. They can’t deal with it because they’ve gone to an ALEC convention that the Koch brothers have sponsored and all signed a pledge card that says ‘no new taxes.’ ”

— Undermining the penal system. “They’re closing down regional jails that the counties own and putting prisoners in the private system. Why are they doing that? It’s either campaign contributions or they feel more obligated to private companies than they do regional county jails.”

— Raiding of special fund money. “They’re taking special fund money, state laws that were passed, and putting it into the general fund.”

— Using the famed beef plant to win the House when they have squandered far more money on their own bad deals. “At the time, we had spent a ton on Nissan. We had done nothing for people in counties with 16 percent unemployment. We had done nothing for people who did not have the education level to work at Nissan. So we thought, ‘Why not go to the Delta and try to create an industry for those people to work.’ We recruited an experienced businessman in the meat industry. I don’t apologize for what we tried to do. I apologize for the outcome. But the truth of the matter, Haley Barbour later solicited a company, Windsor Foods, and now they have 300 people up there working today. They are currently expanding in the same plant.

“They used the beef plant guy going to prison as propaganda to make Mr. McCoy and all rural Democrats look bad and shame us. They used it to take over the House. Now look at all their bad deals far worse than the $20 million lost on the beef plant. Stion, that company up there that was going to make the automobiles. The deal down in Hattiesburg to make solar panels. Every time they have a meeting down there they bring back a panel from China and say, ‘Oh look what we made.’ Then KIOR, turning pine trees into oil. Kemper. And on and on. All we had was the beef plant and that now has 300 employees. You can’t get one word in the newspaper about their failures and they took campaign contributions for them.”

Bo Eaton is an example of what was once a dominant force in Mississippi politics: A rural, salt-of-the-earth people’s politician who sees government as a friend, not an enemy, socially conservative but politically progressive. Aligned with the state’s African American vote, they ruled for decades. The question now: Have Republican blunders opened the door enough to turn back the clock?

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