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Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton, speaks before the business leaders at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual “Hobnob Mississippi” in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Gunn spoke of the Legislature working together to raise the salaries of public school teachers and its residual effect of helping retain veteran teachers in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

11.9.22 – AP – JACKSON, Miss. (AP)

One of the most powerful jobs in Mississippi government will be up for grabs because state House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton says he will not seek reelection to the Legislature in 2023.

Gunn made the announcement in a statement Wednesday, saying he is grateful to to the voters in his district for electing him to the House for five terms, and to his House colleagues for choosing him as speaker for three terms. He said he will serve the final year of his term.

“My service as Speaker coming to an end does not mean I will not be open to future opportunities to serve. I love our state and will always work to make her better,” Gunn said. “I believe there will be an opportunity for me to serve our state soon and when that time comes, I will be ready.”

Gunn is an attorney. He was first elected to the 122-member House in 2003, and his district is in parts of Hinds and Madison counties in the metro Jackson area. In January 2012, he became Mississippi’s first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.

Republicans hold wide majorities in the Mississippi House and Senate. The leader of the 52-member Senate is the lieutenant governor, who is chosen in a statewide election.

The speaker and the lieutenant governor arguably hold more power than the Mississippi governor because they have expansive influence over the legislative process by choosing committee leaders and deciding which committees will consider bills.

“I believe we have moved Mississippi in a positive direction, and I am proud of what we have accomplished together and look forward to another productive session in 2023,” Gunn said Wednesday.

In 2015, Gunn became one the first Republican leaders to publicly call for Mississippi to retire the last state flag in the nation that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The flag had been used since 1894. Gunn said that as a Christian, he believed that the divisive symbol was “a point of offense that needs to be removed” in a state with a 38% Black population.

Although Democrats had tried to retire the flag for years, many Republicans resisted change. Legislators voted with bipartisan support to ditch the flag in mid-2020 amid nationwide protests over racial injustice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Gunn was instrumental this year in pushing legislators to pass one of the largest tax cuts in state history. The 4% income tax bracket will be phased out over four years, starting in 2023. In the following three years, the 5% bracket will be reduced to 4%. Gunn and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves have both said they want a full elimination of the state income tax.

Gunn also has supported restrictions on abortion, including a 2018 Mississippi law that banned most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion-rights supporters challenged the law, and the U.S. Supreme Court used the case this year to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that had established abortion rights nationwide.

Several days after the new Supreme Court ruling, a more restrictive Mississippi abortion law took effect. The law was passed in 2007 to take effect if Roe v. Wade was overruled. It says abortion is legal only if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or if a pregnancy is caused by a rape reported to law enforcement. It does not have an exception for pregnancies caused by incest.

Gunn spoke at the Mississippi Capitol the day justices overturned Roe, and reporters from The Associated Press and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal asked him whether a 12-year-old girl impregnated by her father or uncle should have to carry the pregnancy to term. Gunn, who is a leader in his local Baptist church, said he would oppose changing the Mississippi law to allow abortion in cases of incest.

“I believe that life begins at conception. Every life is valuable,” Gunn said. “Those are my personal beliefs.”

Mississippi voters next year will elect a governor, lieutenant governor and six other statewide officials, plus transportation commissioners and public service commissioners from northern, central and southern districts. All 174 legislative seats also will be on the ballot.