JACKSON — The last time the Mississippi Legislature overrode a veto was 2002. Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was governor. Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, yet the required two-thirds majority in both chambers voted to overturn Musgrove’s vetoes — four times in 2002.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour left office after two terms proudly proclaiming none of his vetoes were overridden. Gov. Phil Bryant can leave office in early January after his two terms making the same boast.
Only time will tell whether Gov.-elect Tate Reeves will keep that no-veto-override streak alive.
Used to be overriding gubernatorial vetoes was a common occurrence — like a game — for Mississippi legislators. Legislators took pride in beating up on the governor — flexing their political muscle. Three of the most significant bills of modern times were passed despite governors’ vetoes by garnering the required two-thirds majority.
The 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program, hailed as one of the most important economic development bills of the past 50 years, was passed over the veto of then Gov. Bill Allain. In 1992, the 1-cent sales tax increase, designed to enhance education, was passed over the veto of Gov. Kirk Fordice. And in 1997 after legislators went home for the year, Fordice vetoed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, landmark legislation to provide more state support to all school districts with a priority on helping poor districts. Then he called a special session in which he recommended legislators pass a less costly measure. Instead, legislators overrode Fordice during the one-day special session and went home again.
Musgrove, though, might have the record for having the most vetoes overridden. In 2001, he vetoed dozens of budget bills, saying the Legislature was appropriating more money than the state would collect and that a new budget needed to be developed. He essentially was vetoing the state budget.
Instead of heeding the advice of the governor, the Legislature promptly overrode the vetoes of the budget bill. The House took up the bills in block. The Senate did him the courtesy of taking up the bills individually, but the results were the same.
For much of the state’s history, Democrats controlled the Legislature and in essence were the real political power in the state. They had no aversion to overriding a fellow Democratic governor.
By the time that Barbour took office in 2004, the Republicans had garnered enough power to have an impact in the Legislature. And Republicans, who had been struggling for power for so long, were reluctant to override a fellow Republican.
So, it could be argued the lack of veto overrides coincides with the emergence of partisan politics in the state. But it actually began at the end of Musgrove’s term. In 2003, an election year, Musgrove vetoed a key spending bill, saying the Legislature could not spend all the state’s reserve funds. By that time, Barbour had announced he was running against Musgrove. House Democrats, who two years earlier had overridden his vetoes of the bills funding state government in almost a blink of an eye, refused to override Musgrove, even though that was the wish of the House leadership. But the rank-and-file members, realizing they also were running for re-election, had made the decision to run in conjunction with the incumbent Democratic governor. They could not afford to weaken his position by overriding his veto in the middle of the campaign.
Of course, Barbour still defeated Musgrove and was able to have more influence in the legislative process — especially in the Senate — than any governor in recent memory. Bryant, who served one term as lieutenant governor presiding over the Senate while Barbour was governor, must have learned from Barbour, because he has not had any vetoes overridden either.
In many ways, Reeves is viewed as much more of a Barbour disciple than Bryant. But whether he can continue the trend of having no vetoes overridden remains to be seen.
After all, Reeves is a headstrong politician who wants to be in control. He will be replaced as lieutenant governor by another headstrong politician — former Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. The pair may not always have the same goals and may clash, leading to possible veto showdowns.
Some form of Medicaid expansion, which Hosemann kind of hints at but Reeves said he adamantly opposes, could be one of those instances where they clash. And factor in that during the past eight years as lieutenant governor, Reeves’ sometimes heavy-handed governing style did not always endear him to House members, which might make him a prime candidate for a veto override before his first term as governor ends.
And besides, based on the state’s history, odds are that it is time for a governor to get a comeuppance from the Legislature — Republican or Democrat.
• Bobby Harrison is the senior Capitol reporter for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization based in Jackson.