Mississippi House and Senate leaders are calling lawmakers back to the Capitol on Monday, August 10th.
While there has been no official announcement as of mid-Friday afternoon, more than a dozen lawmakers have confirmed they are set to reconvene at 1:00 pm Monday. Legislators are openly speculating that they will be considering the Mississippi Department of Education budget, which was vetoed, and likely the annual appropriation for the Department of Marine Resources, which was never passed.
There is also a possibility the Legislature could also consider the veto of $6 million of CARES Act money for Mississippi Access Group Network (MAGnet) and $2 million of CARES Act money for the shuttered North Oak Regional Medical Center. They could also address other coronavirus issues as a result of what members are told are concerns over new Treasury Department guidance and the Back to Business program passed by the Legislature.
Friday, State Senator Brice Wiggins spoke with Y’all Politics on what he foresaw happening come Monday. Wiggins expects the Legislature to handle the DMR budget, as well as the most pressing vetoes, including the education budget and COVID-19 related legislation.
Lawmakers passed HCR 69 in June extending the session and providing six days for them to meet if necessary, with Sine Die slated for no later than October 10th. This resolution states that the Legislature may return with the rules suspended to address “any general bill, appropriation bill or revenue bill related to any action, activity, authorization or expenditure to address or otherwise due to the public health emergency with respect to the novel coronavirus identified as SARS-CoV-2, or commonly referred to as COVID-19, which is authorized to be drafted, introduced or considered further by either the House Rules Committee or the Senate Rules Committee.”
When asked for clarity on how the Legislature was reconvening as it relates to HCR 69, Senator Wiggins deferred to the Speaker and Lt. Governor.
Whether or not this extension provision allows lawmakers to address the vetoes and pass the DMR budget is not perfectly clear. The public messaging from both chambers’ leadership had been that the regular session would remain open solely for new legislation to handle coronavirus related matters. But the consensus seems to be that the leadership can merely suspend the rules once again with a 2/3 vote, much like the flag vote, and take up any legislation in regular order. Senator Wiggins said as such Friday.
Keep in mind, there will be at least two fewer senators (Senators Gary Jackson retired and Sally Doty resigned for position at the Public Utilities Staff).
At this point, it seems inconceivable that Hosemann and Gunn would call their houses back into session unless they were 100% convinced they had the 2/3 vote to suspend the rules and presumably deal with vetoes, if that’s the path they decide. To swing and miss on that would be a mess. But they certainly handled their end of things on the contentious flag vote, so the advantage on that likely lies with Gunn and Hosemann.
“I wouldn’t expect us to come back to just sit there,” Senator Wiggins said when asked if the votes were there to either suspend the rules or override a veto, whichever may come before the bodies.
There has been much speculation over if the Governor would call a special session. If he did, however, lawmakers would then be forced to operate in a prescribed manner, something the legislative leaders this session have proven they do not want as they have sought a more clear distinction between the executive and legislative branches than in years past.
For instance, Governor Tate Reeves could opt to call a special session just on the DMR budget (since the Legislature would be back anyway) and force the House and Senate’s hand on that as the chambers could not agree on how to handle DMR at the end of the session. The Senate wanted to pass it, and the House largely did not.
Of course, all of this is against the backdrop of the pandemic where more than 40 lawmakers and Capitol staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since they last met, including Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Philip Gunn. Exactly how many legislators are available and willing to return given the obvious risk of exposure within the halls of the Capitol is unclear. This could be a challenge to whip votes if lawmakers must get a 2/3 margin to suspend any rules or should they attempt to override Governor Reeves’ vetoes.
Also mucking up the works is the recent lawsuit filed by Speaker Philip Gunn and his Pro Tem Jason White against Governor Reeves. The action claims the Governor’s line item vetoes were improper. Whether a Hinds County Chancery Court judge will rule initially in Gunn and White’s favor on their expedited request to invalidate Reeves’ line item vetoes is still up in the air. Assuming lawmakers do take up the vetoes in question and attempt to vote to override the Governor that would, in a backhanded way, seem to settle the validity of Reeves’ veto.
The best possible outcome for Mississippi to avoid the a contentious legislative showdown and a protracted legal battle would be for Gunn, Hosemann and Reeves to get in a room over the weekend and settle their differences, especially considering that they are all of the same political party. Both rank and file legislators and party loyalists statewide are grousing openly about the inability for the three top leaders in the state to get along.
If they can work out at least a temporary solution as they did back in June, the state can avoid an unnecessary showdown that will only serve to pad the pockets of attorneys, help the opposing political party, clog our judicial system with an unnecessary lawsuit, and make Republicans once again look disjointed.
But that’s highly unlikely to happen at this juncture.
Buckle up. Next week should be interesting.