MERIDIAN — Following a weeklong hormonal brawl and a legal shootout over who would control $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus funding, Mississippi’s top leaders got together last Thursday, saying, “Aw shucks, we didn’t mean it, we’re best buds.”
It started with masked legislators hijacking control of the money from Gov. Tate Reeves. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn hastily convened the Legislature amid the coronavirus, masks and all, to block Reeves’ “unconstitutional” plans to spend money.
Reeves called out legislative leaders, saying they were trying “to steal” his federal spending authority.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour, who controlled emergency federal dollars following Hurricane Katrina, sided with Reeves. “I have been surprised and disappointed to read reports that some in our legislative branch of state government are trying to disrupt and change how Mississippi has effectively responded to emergency situations for decades.”
Nevertheless, the masked legislators voted nearly unanimously to take control of the money from Reeves. Or, they almost did.
Gunn followed up with a blistering shot at Reeves, saying that “you portrayed legislators as thieves and killers. You said we ‘stole the money’ and people would die. Such cheap theatrics and false personal insults were beneath the dignity of your office.”
Reeves then got President Donald Trump involved, with the White House issuing a statement saying he wanted governors to control the money.
Then came last Thursday with its social distancing hug-around.
“It is critically important that we, as a state, come together during these challenging times,” Reeves said.
Somebody with big boy political sense must have yanked a knot into the three Republican leaders. Oh, and it turns out legislators didn’t quite finish their business last week. The Senate adjourned without disposing of a motion to reconsider on the hijack bill. This allowed legislators to back up, undo their takeover, and agree to work with Reeves on spending the money.
Turns out Reeves likely wasn’t exercising unconstitutional power to begin with either, just inconsiderate power.
Hosemann and Gunn had contended the state constitution gives the Legislature sole power to appropriate money, making Reeves’ move to control the money under state code Sections 33-15-27 and 27-104-21, like Barbour did during Katrina, “unconstitutional.” They relied on a 2006 decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court in a suit filed, ironically, by then Gov. Barbour. The court ruled against then Attorney General Jim Hood for using a Jackson County court to appropriate tobacco settlement funds to tobacco education programs outside the legislative process. The court held that the constitution gives the Legislature sole “power of the purse.”
In 2017, however, the Supreme Court ruled in another case that while the Legislature does have core constitutional authority over appropriations, the governor “has the core power to control the budget of state agencies,” especially when the Legislature passes statutes authorizing such actions.
No doubt the public rancor could have been avoided had Reeves considered input from Hosemann and Gunn at the beginning.
It will be interesting to see if this kumbaya moment can last.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. — Ephesians 4:31-32
• Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker. Previously from Meridian, he now lives in Jackson.