Coronavirus in Mississippi: Legislature to suspend session, works to ensure protections for local government workers

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

House representatives stand in recess during the legislative session Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

 

 

Editor’s note: On March 18, the Legislature adjourned until April 1. The lieutenant governor and speaker of the House may delay a return to the Capitol at their own discretion.

Moments after House Speaker Philip Gunn stood at the speaker’s well on Monday afternoon and informed his members that the legislative session would go on as normal despite coronavirus fears, Gunn’s Chief of Staff Trey Dellinger approached the well and whispered in his boss’ ear.

Dellinger had just received a call from state health officer Thomas Dobbs, who suggested that the session be suspended, despite previous suggestions that the session could go on — a message Gunn took to heart as pressure mounted from members in both chambers to postpone.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, left, and House speaker Philip Gunn speak to media concerning the legislative session and the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

At that time Gunn, R-Clinton, did not inform members of the change in advice from the health officer, but asked for a recess and then immediately went to the office of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, where talks commenced on suspending the session as soon as possible.

Those talks began hours of deliberation between the leaders and their staffs about how, exactly, the Legislature would postpone their time in Jackson. The talks also produced some of the most confounding parliamentary maneuvering in the recent history of the Legislature. By the end of the day Tuesday, the 122 members of the House were done with legislative work until at least April 1, but the 52 senators must reconvene Wednesday morning to finalize the postponement of the session.

Legislative leaders informed their members on Tuesday morning that they’d developed a plan to suspend the session and allow the Legislature to resume when both Gunn and Hosemann deemed it appropriate and safe to return to the state Capitol, which has been closed to visitors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before adjourning the session, though, leaders wanted to take care of one issue: provide local governments the authority to continue to pay their workers who might be placed on administrative leave during the virus outbreak. Both the House and Senate brought up bills that would allow city and county governments and school districts to offer paid leave. A day earlier, Gov. Tate Reeves signed an executive order that allows state agencies, boards, commissions and other state entities to offer administrative leave with pay.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Robert Johnson III speaks to media concerning the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

In the House on Tuesday, Democrats pushed to add protections for private employees as well. Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, filed an amendment to a House resolution that would have required the Mississippi Department of Employment Security to provide paid leave to “any persons” — including employees of private companies  — affected by a loss of employment due to coronavirus, whether that be by contracting the virus or having an employer close or cut back hours. He and other Democrats, including Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Ebenezer, urged the House to support it.

“I don’t think it’s right that we go home, hunker down when we have thousands of citizens across this state who are going to be left with no resources at all to try and weather this storm,” Clark said. “I just can’t go home in good faith knowing we’re leaving thousands of Mississippians out here without a life jacket.”

In response, House Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, argued there were too many unknowns to consider Johnson’s proposal.

“We don’t know what it would look like for our state to cover the number of claims this gentleman envisions,” said White.

Johnson’s amendment would not force payments, but would have ensured a bill was alive when legislators returned so that members could at least consider providing unemployment benefits for the workers. The amendment ultimately failed primarily along party lines. Without the Johnson amendment, it will take a two-thirds vote to consider such a bill whenever the session resumes.

Hosemann said federal legislation is being passed that most likely would help the workers impacted by the coronavirus. But Johnson fears that many low wage employees cannot access the federal funds unless a change is made to state law. The change is needed, Johnson argued, because they are not technically unemployed so they cannot draw unemployment benefits.

Johnson and other House Democrats refused to immediately release the bill providing the protection to government workers and the resolution to suspend the session, which is why the Senate must return on Wednesday morning to take up the legislation. 

No additions to the legislation, similar to Johnson’s or any other changes, can be made to the measure in Senate on Wednesday without forcing the House to come back to town to approve them.

If the Legislature does not return in June to pass a new budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, it could create even more issues for a state trying to deal with and anticipate the fallout of the coronavirus.

“This pandemic is most unusual to all of us,” Hosemann said at the end of a press conference on Tuesday. “Our lives are going to get back to normal. We will survive this.”