The Stennis Capitol Press Forum hosted "the Capitol gang" to review the session and politics in Mississippi at the Capital Club in Jackson this week. Bobby Harrison from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Geoff Pender from the Clarion Ledger and Jeffrey Hess from Mississippi Public Broadcasting fielded questions on the legislature's effectiveness, winners and losers, top issues, odd happenings, rising stars and the U.S. Senate race.

Hess and Pender both graded the legislature with a "B" for their effectiveness this year in passing criminal justice reform, the religious liberty act, drug testing for TANF recipients and a teacher pay raise. Pender called it a "mixed bag" for education and Harrison echoed that sentiment saying teachers would likely consider giving the legislature an "A" while advocates concerned with overall funding, specifically MAEP, could grade them with an "F."

Pender called Brad Mayo (R-Oxford) and Andy Gipson (R-Braxton) "rising stars" in the House of Representative and said David Baria (D-Bay St. Louis), Mark Baker (R-Brandon) and Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) all have a bright future with the potential to campaign for higher office. He said Governor Phil Bryant, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves all had wins this session for their agendas. He said there was more chatter this year than past sessions on Gunn's future aspirations for office.

Harrison said the Senate Conservative Coalition - visibly led by Senators Chris McDaniel, Melanie Sojourner and Michael Watson - had been expected to play a larger role in shaping debate, but were not nearly as effective as he expected. Pender echoed those thoughts as it applied to Common Core. He said observers expected a big fight on the issue from those in the Senate Conservative Coalition, but opposition seemed to fizzle.

Harrison noted Senator Hob Bryan (D-Amory) continues to be both prickly and effective and has shown his ability to work closely with - but sometimes against - Republican leadership through the past several GOP led Senate administrations. He added Charles Busby (R-Pascagoula) to the list of rising stars. Harrison also said there has been some talk about a primary challenge from the senate against Lt. Governor Reeves (if financially possible), as well as some talk about Republican leadership change in the House.

Harrison said House minority leader Bobby Moak (D-Bogue Chitto) was surprisingly effective at keeping Democrats united this session. Hess, however, said he saw a less effective Moak presiding over Democrats resigned to the minority, not vocal or active in opposition. Hess said this is the third year Governor Bryant has set a session agenda and succeeded and believes he will do well in a presumed reelection campaign. Hess believes Speaker Gunn lost his handle on the teacher pay raise, but he wanted a raise and got it and it was good for Republicans to take the issue off the table before next year's election year session.

Harrison said time will tell whether the criminal justice reform will actually save the projected $270 million over ten years after adjustments were made to the legislation dealing with violent crimes. That and the teacher pay raise were the two most significant pieces of legislation he saw this session, but believes "Medicaid expansion will continue to be an issue. It is not going away."

Hess believes Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) were the secret winners this session. He noted that the legislature passed expanded managed care, the "doctor fix" for Medicaid reimbursement, and there was a Republican measure to offer tax incentives for insurance companies participating in Obamacare. He said he thinks resistance is cracking on these issues and the opposition is thawing.

Pender said "I must have missed that one" because he saw no such thaw. Unless the hospitals united to push for expansion, he doesn't see the issue going anywhere.

All three thought the failure of the texting-while-driving ban in the final minutes of the session was odd, but Pender also thought it was strange that it made it as far as it did. He said many legislators thought it would only apply to minor drivers because apparently they didn't read beyond the short title of the measure. Harrison said he thought the House was on the verge of not funding the Department of Transportation and was willing to go home and return for a special session if necessary. But he thought the floor speeches by Transportation Chairman Robert Johnson (D-Natchez) and Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson (R-Poplarville) actually changed minds and pushed the bill forward to passage.

On the U.S. Senate race between Republicans Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel, all three believe Cochran will win and face-off against former Congressman Travis Childers as the winner of the Democratic nomination. Pender said it is possible Childers could defeat McDaniel in a general election, especially if national Democrats poured money into the competitive race.

Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC which is working with Mississippi Conservatives PAC to promote the reelection of Sen. Thad Cochran. Reach him at or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.