The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.
by Alan Lange
UPDATE 10:00 p.m. 3/27/17
Well, no sooner had I written about brinksmanship and leverage before the Mississippi House and Senate both upped the ante substantially.
Ahead of a conference report deadline of 6:00, the House and Senate locked horns over the $1,200,000,000 FY18 appropriation for the MS Dept. of Transportation. What seemed to be agreed to over the weekend unraveled when the House earlier in the day voted to recommit the conference report. Mississippi Today had a good capstone piece on the drama.
As it got later in the day, it became evident that both sides weren't budging. The House, as it has pushed for in the now defunct bond bill over the weekend, wanted more money for roads. The Senate made any issue that was tied to internet sales tax collection/diversion a die-in-the-ditch issue.
Reeves got the votes on the Senate floor to extend the time for another couple of hours to see if the original conference report could get adopted. Gunn responded by recessing and sending his folks to dinner.
So, we will be assured of a special session and the time frame is more compressed because the MDOT appropriation will need to be worked out before the fiscal year starts on July 1. Keep in mind that there was likely going to be a special session on rewriting the soon-to-be-former MAEP formula.
Now here's where it gets interesting. Governor Phil Bryant has been pretty measured about special sessions. He has not used it as a tool to whipsaw opponents like Haley Barbour did. They've been relatively rare and they're typically highly scripted very short affairs as it appears everyone is sensitive to the optics of a $65K/day special session expenditure. So his party line has been that any negotiation needs to happen before the special session gets called so that House and Senate can do their business as quickly as possible and move on.
And the politics on this road funding issue is compelling as well. On one side, you have the MS Economic Council, some pretty entrenched lobbying and business interests and the House Speaker that all seem to be wanting the issue addressed now. On the other, you have more political interests like freedom groups (Americans for Prosperity) and those that wield a more grassroots stick against any sort of tax raise or spending increase. And Tate Reeves certainly seems to be in the latter camp.
The battle lines seem to be shaping up as follows - Gunn will pit Reeves as standing in the way of progress and safety. Reeves will characterize Gunn as someone who wants to codify and divert an Internet Sales Tax to increase spending. And it's not just one person against the other. It seems like the will of the state House and Senate are pretty dug in at this point.
It will make for interesting politics for sure.
Leverage is defined as "to use something valuable to achieve a desired result."
It was Conference Weekend at the Mississippi Legislature, and that something valuable was time. Leverage was on full display.
Appropriations, relative to projected (not year over year) expenditures, was about as tough as anyone I talked to under the Dome could remember. Mind you, the state budget has grown close to 13% in recent years, from $5.5 billion since 2011 to nearly $6.3 billion now. But wants and needs always seem to increase faster than money coming in.
By condensing almost the entirety of legislative appropriate and finance issues into the end of the session (over a weekend, no less), there is an enormous amount of pressure put on all things. Relative decisions on spending money between agencies or programs have to be made quickly and sometimes it's not real smooth.
Brinksmanship can be pretty effective, and like in 2012, Tate Reeves put it on display. In his first legislative session as Lieutenant Governor, he threatened to blow up the “bond bill”, which is essentially an omnibus spending bill that is negotiated most sessions for things like capital improvements for colleges and things that might not fit into regular appropriations. People didn’t think he’d do it, but he did it. And no one has forgotten since.
This weekend, House and Senate senior leadership again did not come to terms on the bond bill. Speaker Philip Gunn issued a press release stating what their positions were and reiterating that they wanted to find a solution particularly for road funding. For his part, LG Tate Reeves had a press quote saying, “We’re not going to do what they do in Washington D.C. and continue to borrow money that we can’t afford to pay back. Taxpayers expect state government to live within its means, just like they do at home."
In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Bryant said he was reminded of the "words of a popular song from 1969: ‘You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need." Bryant added, "Let us now go about seeing what state government really needs.”
While it’s not a particularly pleasant time down at your friendly local State Capitol, session will soon be over and overt tensions will cease soon enough. Mississippi is not the only state going through these sorts of issues (ask next door neighbor Louisiana about their budget), but it still doesn’t make this fun for anyone.