By Billy Davis and John Howell Sr.
A year ago this week, the annual Panola County Legislative Reception included a surprise: state Sen. Nolan Mettetal, then a Democrat, announced he was switching his party affiliation.
The senator walked in to the Jackson Trade Mart, accompanied by Republican leaders Gov. Haley Barbour and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, to announce the switch.
“I didn’t leave the party, the party left me,” he told the crowd, using a refrain most famously used by Ronald Reagan to signal a shift in philosophy.
This year, no major surprises were observed at the annual well-attended reception. Barbour and Bryant did not attend, and Mettetal’s only sidekick Wednesday night was his wife, Kay Mettetal.
More than 600 people attended the 2009 reception.
“I’m the same person I was a year ago, which is a conservative,” Mettetal, 63, said Thursday morning from Jackson.
In the state Senate, Mettetal represents District 10, which includes all of Panola County and most of Tate. He has served since 1996.
Mettetal’s parting from the Democratic Party had been the subject of speculation following a grueling re-election challenge from then-fellow Democrat Mona Pittman.
The incumbent senator had won by 88 votes, and that narrow win was followed by a courtroom showdown in Batesville and an appearance before state Democrats in Jackson.
Affidavits accused Mettetal of voter tampering and even attempting to run over a voter with his automobile.
Mettetal on Thursday repeated an accusation he has made over the past year: his support of tort reform had made him a target of “trial lawyers” who traditionally vote and donate to the Democratic Party.
Pittman is employed as an attorney in Batesville and at the time of the senate race was serving as state secretary of a trial lawyers association.
The state’s Republicans, including Mettetal, traditionally enjoy more support from the business community.
Mettetal, who is from Sardis, operated a family pharmacy in Sardis before he was elected to the state Senate.
Regarding current business in the state Senate, Mettetal said debate was expected to begin Thursday on a proposed increase in the state’s tobacco tax.
The state House has approved an 82-cent hike, which would jump the tax to $1 a pack. The Senate Finance Committee, on which Mettetal sits, approved a 31-cent hike this week.
Once the Senate bill is approved, negotiations will begin between the two chambers.
Mettetal said he has supported a $1-a-pack tax in the past but said he doubts the Senate will approve it.
“You’re not going to get a $1-a-pack out of the Senate,” he said.
Mettetal has also authored a bill that criminalizes the sale or attempted sale of children. That legislation stems from an incident in Yalobusha County in 2008.
A similar bill has been offered by state Sen. Doug Davis, he said.
“Everyone was kind of surprised – and I was, too – that there was nothing on the books to punish that kind of behavior,” Mettetal said.