A tense struggle for power between Republican legislative leaders and the Republican governor could come down to an unlikely group of elected officials: Mississippi’s legislative Democrats.
Democrats have for years been relegated to effectively no political power in the Capitol as Republicans swept statewide elections last year and shored up a three-fifths supermajority in both the House and the Senate.
But as Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn try to wrangle the sole spending authority of $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds from Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, Democrats will be the deciding votes between whether the legislative leaders or the governor keep that authority.
“There is an old political cliche: ‘Politics makes for strange bedfellows,'” said Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville. “This one of those situations where there’s a stranger sleeping in my bed. (Republicans) are going to need allies.”
The GOP power struggle centers on whether the governor or the Legislature should have spending authority over the $1.25 billion in coronavirus stimulus funds that the state of Mississippi has received. For weeks, Reeves has maintained he has the sole authority but that he would consult with the Legislature in how that money is spent.
But this week, legislative leaders took matters into their own hands, finalizing plans to return to the Capitol early to pass legislation that would guarantee them that spending power and take it out of the governor’s hands. On Wednesday, Hosemann and Gunn sent a letter to the state’s fiscal officer and state treasurer and asked them to halt spending the funds until the Legislature meets and decides how to proceed.
The Legislature has been in a coronavirus-related recess since mid-March and was previously scheduled to return on May 18. The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene at 1 p.m. Friday — more than two weeks earlier than originally planned — to address the matter.
Leaders are negotiating behind closed doors on Thursday what the legislation will look like and how they will proceed. Sources close to the negotiations said one possibility remains that the House and Senate would need to vote to suspend the rules to bring up any new legislation that has been discussed. A vote to suspend the legislative rules requires a two-thirds vote of approval in both the House and the Senate.
While Republicans hold a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers, they do not hold a two-thirds supermajority in either chamber, meaning Democrats would have meaningful votes.
If the leaders finds a legislative method to avoid suspending the rules to introduce a bill, a two-thirds vote would be required to override a potential veto from the governor of any bill that does pass.
Both two-thirds votes scenarios give Democrats an important seat at the negotiating table regarding how the federal stimulus money should be spent.
Mississippi Today spoke with members of the Democratic Caucus and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus to ask whether they believe the Legislature should have spending authority over the stimulus funds.
Top Democrats in the Legislature have been in talks with both Reeves and legislative leaders in recent hours as votes are being whipped and battle lines are being drawn.
Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, the House Democratic leader, says he supports the effort of Gunn and Hosemann to ensure the Legislature has spending authority of the at least $1.25 billion in federal funds. But Johnson said he believes the Republican legislative leadership should work with the minority Democratic members to garner their input in spending the funds.
Most Democrats who spoke with Mississippi Today on Thursday said they believe the Legislature should have the spending authority.
“There has been a history of the governor spending money in places where it didn’t affect the African American community,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson. “With the COVID-19 crisis 100 percent affecting us, it’s a no-brainer to spend that in our communities…on clinical research, opportunities to find ways to help us with our diets and things of that nature, to provide monies for first responders, grocery store workers and janitors that have to deal with this.”
Bell also said he believes the funds should be spent on issues like providing broadband to rural areas and funding the state’s historically black colleges and universities health and engineering departments to help create ventilators, among other areas.
“One of the red flags for me was that (Reeves) thought he had the authority to spend the money, and then he made the statement he’s going to hire a third party to help spend the money,” Bell said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. said he does not have any preconceived notions on where the money should be spent but that it should be done in an open and transparent legislative process – not by one person.
“It is the constitutional duty of the legislative branch of government to appropriate money,” Blount said.
Sen. Angela Turner Ford, D-West Point, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus comprised exclusively of Democrats, said that the money should be spent to help victims of the coronavirus. She stopped short of saying the funds should be appropriated by the Legislature.
“I don’t want to state a position right now,” Turner-Ford said. “I would like to know the authority the governor says he has. I personally would like to have more information.”
Leaders from both the Legislative Black Caucus and the Democratic Caucus are working to create unanimity among their members, and sources in both caucuses said they are leaning toward siding with legislative leadership and hope to create meaningful dialogue with Hosemann and Gunn about how the money should be spent.
“The Legislature has the authority to appropriate funding for our state and the CARES act monies should not be treated any differently,” said Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport. “We are responsible for the welfare of the citizens of Mississippi and therefore, we should be able to appropriate funds for the benefit of all citizens.”