Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

So a Mississippi governor and the state’s Legislature disagree over constitutional powers and responsibilities when it comes to how the state utilizes and expends the $1.25 billion in funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. For those familiar with the state’s history, is that development particularly shocking or surprising?

And is the political spat something that particularly traces to the individuals involved – Gov.

Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn – or are they merely the latest set of actors in a political passion play that Mississippians have witnessed many times before?

The 1890 Mississippi Constitution created a “weak governor, strong Legislature” system of government. Nearly a century after the 1890 Constitution was adopted, Mississippi’s governor was granted the increased powers of gubernatorial succession and the authority to propose an executive budget. But overall, the 1890 constitution still vests the lion’s share of raw political power in the state Legislature. Therefore, the legislative leadership since 1890 has wielded enormous power.

The system spawned strong, dominating lieutenant governors (as Reeves certainly was during his two terms leading the State Senate), House speakers, and legislative chairmen of the “money” committees in the House and Senate. For many years, Mississippi governors were often more in the role of spectators to the formation of public policy than active and equal participants with the legislative branch.

That is not to say that there have not been exceptions to the “weak governor” model. In 1982, Democratic Gov. William Winter harnessed media coverage to essentially go over the heads of the Legislature to enact sweeping public education reforms. But a key factor in Winter’s success was that the fight over education reform in 1982 never took on partisan overtones. It was a fight between the “old guard” in the then-dominant Democratic Party in the state and the younger, more progressive members of the same party. What it was not was a partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats. In 1982, Republicans were still on the outside looking in when it came to state government.

The “weak governor” model was completely turned on its head while Republican Gov. Haley Barbour was in office from 2004 – 2012. Barbour, the longtime national GOP political force of nature, enjoyed an outsized amount of power and influence during his two terms in office despite meager constitutional powers. Barbour implemented Washington-style party discipline particularly in the state Senate and used that discipline to manipulate state government into a model which pitted him and the Senate in many cases against the Democrat-controlled House.

The strategy was simple. Barbour made support of his position a litmus test for Republicans. Republicans who failed to support Barbour found themselves ostracized to a degree within their own party. The threat of Barbour’s possible intervention in the legislative races of his fellow Republicans during the primaries was also a point of intimidation.

Barbour leveraged that set of circumstances into more power than any modern governor in either party has been able to enjoy. But in the aftermath of the 2011 statewide elections, the rules of engagement changed.

Republicans swept to power in both the House and the Senate, giving the GOP simultaneous control of the Senate, House and the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since Reconstruction. Then-Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, even with a resume of prior state legislative experience far superior to that which Barbour held when he was elected governor in 2003, never enjoyed the leverage that Barbour held in dealing with the Legislature.

The dynamics of an all-Republican legislative power structure has returned the role of the governor to that which existed when the Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Mansion. Gov. Reeves certainly knew that when he assumed office in 2020.

Gunn made no secret in 2019 of his intention for the House and the Legislature to reassert itself in 2020. Hosemann was equally vocal about his desire for a stronger Legislature.

The decision by Reeves, Hosemann, and Gunn to govern nimbly together in the expenditure and distribution of the CARES Act funds was wise on several fronts. But it also underscores the fact that having a single party in control exacerbates the same constitutional issues for the GOP that it did for the Democrats for the better part of a century before them.