Gunn: Legislature ‘stays within our means’

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House Speaker Philip Gunn applauded the Legislature on Thursday for its work this session, focusing on a budget that “stays within our means.”

The Clinton Republican told reporters he was pleased overall with the Legislature’s work, noting the $6 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2018 does exactly what Republicans campaign on: controlled spending and reducing the size of government.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn talks with reporters on Thursday about the legislative session.

“The budget that we brought forward this week I think is a responsible budget, it does only spend the money that we have to spend,” Gunn said.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature reported that they had better communication with Republican leaders, but raised concerns about their party’s real input into the legislation. Two areas of clear contention were gender pay equity and Medicaid expansion, they said.

Both Gunn and  Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, in comments after the Senate adjourned on Wednesday, downplayed the failure to pass appropriations bills for the Department of Transportation and Attorney General.

The budget impasse will force Gov. Phil Bryant to call a special session, sometime before June 30, to fund the agencies.

“It is not unusual for any major piece of legislation to not make it across the finish line in one year,” Reeves said. “We’ve had some very, very good successes this legislative session, and we’ve had some challenges, which is not unique.”

Gunn said the House and Senate have been in conversation, but if no agreement is reached on the issue of additional road and bridge funding then the Legislature will at least finalize the remainder of the agency budget during the special session.

The House tried several approaches to establish alternate funding for road and bridge improvements. The Senate found those approaches wanting, even saying one approach was illegal, and the two chambers were unable to agree before legislative deadlines killed the MDOT appropriations bill.

“If we don’t come to a resolution (on additional funding), we’ll come back in one afternoon probably and just do the budget, for both the (Attorney General) and the roads,” Gunn said.

Gunn said he could not foresee that taking more than half a day.

“We can’t allow MDOT to go unfunded,” Gunn said.

Since Republicans gained a supermajority in both houses for the first time last year, Democratic leaders in both houses have voiced concerns with the legislative process and the stranglehold of Republican leadership.

In sharp contrast to last year’s filibustering, race-fueled accusations and even a lawsuit against Gunn, party leaders this session, at least in the House, developed a peace treaty.

“I felt like we had a very good session on the House of Representatives side,” Gunn said. “I felt like the spirit was good, people got along well.”

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

Gunn committed to holding regular meetings with House Minority Leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis. While the lines of communication remained open all session, Baria said, Democrats had no input on what bills came out of committee and onto the floor for debate.

Baria cited the death of key pieces of legislation like gender pay equality (which had bipartisan support) and raising the minimum wage as reason for concern this session, and he paralleled the Republican infighting with the factional Republican bickering going on in Washington.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs, said Senate Democrats were “brought into many conversations” by Republican leadership this session. Stone also discussed the death of gender pay equality, and he said his caucus wanted a broader discussion about Medicaid expansion.

“Republican bickering is preventing us from doing the big things we need to do like the education rewrite and funding our roads and bridges,” Baria said. “Part of that is 2019 elections looming, I guess.”

“You’ve got to stop campaigning and start governing,” he continued. “Until someone’s ready to show some real leadership and decide to do that, we’re stuck in this cycle of not doing what’s best for Mississippians.”

Education funding and a bonds bill could also be included in a special session call, leaders said this week. A bond bill that would have funded construction at state universities and community colleges died in the dispute over roads funding.

Legislators also may need to address an overhaul of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. After recommendations by consultant EdBuild were unveiled with much fanfare in January, legislative leaders were mum about specific changes and rank-and-file members said they had little information about what or when changes would be presented.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn shows off the collection of baseball bats he keeps in his office before a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

“I don’t know that it’s any big secret, it’s just like any big piece of legislation, especially a major piece of legislation like this, you try to evaluate the various angles and options that may occur,” Gunn said.

He said the House is continuing to weigh how each of EdBuild’s recommendations would affect school funding, and if a consensus is reached with the Senate it could be brought up during the special session for MDOT and attorney general budgets.

“If, and I’m not saying we will be, I’m just saying if we were somehow able to come to what we deem would be a final product, then we could certainly approach the Governor about making it part of the special session,” Gunn said.

The House will also look into the possibility of a state lottery this summer. Gunn said he asked Gaming Commission committee chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, to form a committee to research the feasibility and impact of a lottery in Mississippi.

“I’m open to it,” Gunn said. “I do not think it’s going to be the golden egg that everyone thinks that it is.”

Gunn highlighted several pieces of legislation that did pass this session, including the bill establishing a state-funded Capitol Complex district and a bill allowing collaboration between University of Mississippi Medical Center and rural hospitals.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

Both leaders praised lawmakers for their work on bills like the “Back the Badge Act,” which imposes stricter penalties on crimes against law enforcement officers.

Reeves touted several education bills, like the expansion of scholarships for dyslexic students and a bill that emphasizes teaching cursive writing in public schools. He also commended the anti-sanctuary cities bill, which prevents Mississippi cities and universities from disobeying federal immigration laws.