Minutes after raising his voice at a Democratic counterpart on the House floor Wednesday, Rep. Herb Frierson urged his colleagues to cope with Mississippi’s new partisan-charged political era by learning to work better together.
Frierson, R-Poplarville and outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was tasked with managing the bill allowing Gov. Phil Bryant to dip into the state’s Rainy Day Fund at whatever level might be necessary to balance the state’s fiscal year budget. The state’s fiscal year officially ends Thursday at midnight.
Frierson, who on Friday becomes state commissioner of revenue, used his final remarks on the House floor as a state representative to reflect on the two-day special session and the tension exhibited from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
“We have found ourselves in a new, very partisan-charged era of Mississippi politics,” Frierson said. “It’s the job of the opposition to oppose. That’s why we just went through what we went through. You do not want a leadership with so much power and no check. So that was good.”
The comments wrapped up a tumultuous two-day special session in which tempers flared and blame was cast from both sides of the aisle over the current year’s budget shortfalls and the approach taken to budget matters during the regular legislative session that ended in April. (Jeff Amy of The Associated Press tweeted late Thursday that state budget officials were recommending that Bryant withdraw $63 million from the reserve fund to balance the state budget.)
The bickering added to a period of divisiveness that had its roots in November 2015, when Republicans handily took supermajority control of the House of Representatives for the first time in more than a century. With an existing supermajority in the Senate and a GOP governor, Republicans had effectively gained control of the levers of state government and pushed through several laws over the protests of Democrats.
“After decades of Democratic control in Mississippi, it seems there’s a breed of Republicans who perhaps felt they were shut out all these years and they have come in with the attitude that it’s time for payback,” said Marty Wiseman, who served as director of the John C. Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University for 29 years.
“I’ve heard countless people, lawmakers and lobbyists and others, say they have never seen the absolute discord and harshness coming from the Legislature, from both parties, that they had to deal with this year. It’s almost a uniform observation,” he said.
Bryant called lawmakers back to Jackson on Tuesday to allow him to pull additional money from the Rainy Day Fund in order to balance the state budget at the end of this month. It quickly became clear that the Democrats still bore resentment from the proceedings of the regular session.
The Senate passed the bill quickly Tuesday morning, sending it to the House for consideration. But when House members were asked to vote to suspend normal rules to consider the bill immediately, Democrats stood together against the action, which requires a two-thirds vote. The move effectively created a second day of the special session, costing taxpayers an additional $33,228 on top of the $68,720 bill for the first day of the session.
Republicans claimed their counterparts were stalling unnecessarily and wasting taxpayers’ money by effectively forcing a second day of the special session. Democrats railed against Republican leaders for the general budget woes and having to meet back under the dome for a special session in the first place.
“The bill is very simple, it is not complicated,” Gunn said Tuesday afternoon. “And they’re choosing to play games with taxpayers dollars when they’ve had plenty of time to resolve this.”
He continued: “We did the work, we got the bill together, we got the numbers together, we’re ready to rock and roll. They’re the ones who refuse to suspend the rules, they’re the ones who caused us to come back another day and he (House minority leader David Baria) is trying to avoid responsibility for that.”
Gov. Phil Bryant joined in the criticism of the Democrats’ tactics.
“It’s regrettable that the grandstanding of the House Democrats cost taxpayers an additional $30,000,” Bryant said in a release Wednesday afternoon. “I am grateful to the leadership of the Senate and the House for doing their job and allowing me to do mine – balancing the state budget.”
In a press release distributed Thursday morning, Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, likened Mississippi Republicans to a politburo, the principal policy making arm of the Communist Party when it ruled Russia. Earlier in the week, Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called the Republican-controlled Legislature “a dictatorship.”
“Republicans attempted to railroad through a bill giving the governor carte blanche spending authority,” Baria said. “Democrats simply slowed the process down so that questions about the budget mess could be answered. The state budget should not be a partisan issue, but Republicans continue to run our government like a politburo.”
Gunn’s office declined to comment. In comments Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said: “I don’t respond much to House Democrats. They have had a hard time winning elections and they’re frustrated by that. I understand that.”
House Democrats attempted several procedural delays Wednesday, filing a point of order (a claim that House rules and the Mississippi Constitution were violated) and eight different amendments to the bill. The amendments offered to transfer money to specific agencies like the Department of Mental Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Democrats have publicly argued the budget cuts to those agencies, in particular, will hurt the state.
Frierson noted in response that the bill being considered could not be legally used to add money to any agency’s budget.
Baria introduced an amendment that would cap the governor’s transfer authority at $100 million. Other Democrats pressed Republican leaders throughout the morning about the bill allowing Bryant an uncapped transfer authority.
In one particularly heated exchange with Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, Frierson came prepared with vote tallies from April, showing that most House Democrats voted to approve the appropriations in the regular session. He also argued that past governors – even Democrats – have had unlimited Rainy Day Fund transfer authority.
“You let Democratic governors do the same thing,” Frierson said to Scott. “It’s unlimited for two days … I support it, yes I do.”
Republicans brushed the delay attempts off, claiming the point of order was moot and voting to table – not debate – all eight amendments.
The Mississippi Democratic Party, which just elected new officers last week, will be led in coming months by Bobby Moak, who was ousted from his House seat of 32 years in November. Wiseman said the actions of the Democrats in the special session could set the tone for the party in the next two to three years.
“The upshot of the special session for Democrats is a lot of people are getting frustrated, especially with the budget,” Wiseman said. “If the Democrats can get organized, there are numerous opportunities. Then at least, just like they did for a few moments in the special session, they can present another side of the discussion and a threat that makes people pay attention. I’m seeing some signs of life there.”
As the feud simmered near the end of the day, Frierson launched his calm summation of the week’s special session and the bickering between the two parties that has seemingly controlled news cycles for months.
“We must learn to manage this new partisanship,” Frierson continued. “You’re going to go through some rough times doing it. But I encourage this house to learn to manage the partisanship and learn to communicate.”