Republican Rep. Jason White of West won the election on Tuesday to become the new speaker of the House of Representatives, ushering in a new chapter of political power at the Mississippi State Capitol.
The 122-member chamber unanimously elected White by acclamation, and he was the only person nominated for speaker. His election to one of the most powerful positions in state government was not a surprise, but it still represents a shift in legislative politics.
“I look forward to working with all of you for the betterment of Mississippi,” White said in a speech to the House on Tuesday. “Many of us here, we see things from very different perspectives, different viewpoints. But I also know we love this state and want to do what’s best, what’s right for her people.”
White, 50, was first elected to the House in 2011 as a Democrat, but he quickly switched to the Republican Party the following year. He represents portions of Attala, Carroll, Holmes and Leake counties and previously led the House Rules Committee and the House Management Committee.
The new speaker replaces Philip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, who announced last year that he would not seek another term for his House seat. White was one of Gunn’s top lieutenants and most trusted advisers over the past three terms.
The speaker is not a statewide office position, but it carries power and influence similar to a statewide post. The speaker appoints committee leaders in the House and helps drive policy decisions during a legislative session.
One of the largest questions looming over the 2024 legislative session and now White, who represents a rural district, is if he will openly push for the Republican-dominated chamber to consider expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to the working poor who do not have health insurance.
White has expressed in blunt terms that the state’s Republicans have not had a frank and open discussion about Medicaid expansion.
In his speech to the House members on Tuesday, White told his colleagues to keep an “open mind” when examining Mississippi’s health care system, whose rural hospitals have consistently eliminated services and raised alarm bells on their long-term survival.
Still, the new speaker stopped short of backing a specific proposal for addressing the health care crisis. He did, however, appear to get out in front of some anti-expansion rhetoric.
“We need to find ways to ensure that the folks who are working have some basic level of health care that keeps them in the workforce and out of the emergency room,” White said. “I’m not talking about a government handout. I’m talking about provider-led solutions that the state will foster and facilitate.”
Other policy priorities the speaker outlined were changing portions of Mississippi’s public school funding formula, generally reducing government spending, and reforming the way the Legislature writes the state budget. He vowed to allow members the chance to read each and every budget bill before they were asked to vote on them — a standard practice in the Capitol for the past several years.
White’s address to the House chamber represents a notable break from the past 12 years of Gunn’s speakership, who became notorious for his tight grip on legislative decisions and using his power to ram legislation through the Capitol.
“Now, it’s time to be here,” White said. “What does that mean? That means working with your colleagues in the House both within your caucus and across the aisle. That means considering ideas and positions you may not have considered or thought through before.”
The Democratic members did not put a candidate forward for speaker or contest White’s nomination, and many Democrats stood on Tuesday for an extended ovation following White’s speech.
Rep. Robert Johnson III, a Democrat from Natchez who is expected to become the House Minority Leader, told Mississippi Today that he believes the Democratic caucus will have a good working relationship with White, though Johnson still has questions about some of White’s policy proposals.
“Jason has always been open and honest,” Johnson said. “I’m encouraged, and I think we’ll work well together.”
The House on Tuesday also elected Rep. Manly Barton, a Republican from Moss Point, to serve as the speaker pro tempore, who presides over the House when the speaker is absent and often serves as a key advisor to the speaker.
Barton was first elected to the House in 2011 and sworn into office in 2012. He represents portions of George and Jackson counties and previously chaired the House Local and Private Committee.
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