Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves presides over the State Senate

The Senate narrowly approved a bill Thursday that would give the governor control of the Department of Mental Health.

Senate Bill 2567 was the brainchild of Republicans and had the backing of both Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant. But the bill came under fire from members of both parties on the Senate floor, ultimately passing by one vote, 25-24.

The bill would let the governor appoint the executive director of the department, and it would demote the Board of Mental Health from a governing body to an advisory council.

Cries for reform in the agency reached new heights in August when the Department of Justice issued a court order against the state, citing the Mental Health Department’s inability to transition patients from institutions to more modern, community-based systems. State leaders have long criticized the Department of Mental Health for what they’ve said is a bloated staff and budget.

“There are lot of individuals from doctors to advocacy groups who are deeply concerned about how the Department of Mental Health is being operated, and I believe moving the agency under the Office of the Governor may provide accountability to the taxpayers and improve patient care,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement released after the bill passed.

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale.

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, who authored the legislation, backed up Reeves, saying this bill provides a check on the agency’s power.

“I think it gives the agency more accountability to have a statewide elected official (at the helm),” Clarke said. “Specifically with the problems we’re having getting this agency to follow the Department of Justice recommendations, I think it gives them more accountability.”

But Richard Barry, who chairs the Board of the Department of Mental Health, issued a fiery response to the legislation, saying his department was “being used as a power play” by the governor and Legislature.

Senate opponents on both sides of the aisle pushed back against the legislation, too, arguing it would unnecessarily politicize a vital state agency.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory

“I don’t know that giving the governor of the state of Mississippi complete control of this agency is going to do one thing other than consolidate power in the governor, so that the governor will have more of an influence and control more contracts and have more power, which will be used for political purposes,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

The bill was embattled long before Thursday’s debate, and the version that Clarke presented on the Senate floor is a shadow of the original legislation. The original legislation, which narrowly passed the Senate Appropriations committee last month, would have given Bryant the reins to the Departments of Health and Rehabilitation Services as well as Mental Health, allowing him to appoint agency heads and curtailing the power of their boards.

But outcry around the state was swift. In a conversation with Mississippi Today, Dr. Luke Lampton, who chairs the Board of the Department of Health, called the bill “the most tragic bill in the history of public health in Mississippi.”

The next day Clarke walked back some of his support for the legislation, saying that he would be open to an amendment that preserved the boards’ power, at least for the Department of Health.

But in the end, only the changes to Mental Health stuck.

Clarke said that the department’s large budget and its ongoing battle with the Justice Department made it an obvious target for reorganization. The Legislature initially appropriated $241 million in state funds to the Department of Mental Health for fiscal year 2017. In comparison, the Department of Health received $62 million and Rehabilitation received $27 million.

Clarke also acknowledged that Mental Health’s reorganization was the least likely to be opposed.

“Trying to include all three may have been too much,” Clarke said. “So we said which one would be most important to do at this time, and we said mental health. It’s the largest budget and most employees and that’s the one we’ve got to get our hands around.”

Barry said he was not surprised by the legislation.

“It was our speculation all along that this bill was in retaliation to DMH and today it was proven true when the bill was amended to apply only to our agency and removed the Mississippi Department of Health and Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services,” Barry wrote in a statement Thursday afternoon.

One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at the Department has been its inability to care for the number of Mississippians who need its services. Several senators spoke Thursday about constituents whose family members were forced to wait for a bed at a state facility from a jail cell.

Clarke said he thought this would address that, though he stopped short of offering specifics.

“With the governor having more accountability, maybe those thing can be worked out on a quicker basis,” Clarke said.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.