Members of the Mississippi House are expected to file a lawsuit, as early as Wednesday, challenging Gov. Tate Reeves’ partial veto of a bill spending federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Legislative sources said lawmakers also are considering reconvening in Jackson as early as next week to consider overriding some of Reeves’ five vetoes he issued in early July, including his partial veto of the K-12 education budget.
The looming lawsuit and return to Jackson sets up yet another clash between Republican legislative leaders and the Republican governor.
Earlier this year, Reeves sparred with House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, over who should get spending authority of $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. The Legislature prevailed. Lawmakers also bucked the will of Reeves when they voted to remove the state flag in June.
Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Legislators have been waiting for Reeves to call them back in special session to deal at least with Reeves’ partial veto of the education budget and to pass a budget bill for the Department of Marine Resources. DMR was not funded before the Legislature left July 1 because of a disagreement between the House and Senate over Reeves’ authority to spend millions in Gulf restoration funds.
The Constitution gives the governor sole authority to call a special session. But this year legislators passed a resolution giving Gunn and Hosemann the authority to reconvene the Legislature to take up COVID-19 issues. Once in session, if approved by two-thirds of the members, legislators could take up essentially any issue. A two-thirds vote also would be required for any veto override.
There has been speculation about whether Reeves’ partial veto of a bill appropriating federal funds to hospitals and other healthcare providers is constitutional.
The state Constitution gives a governor some line-item veto power, but the parameters of that power have been debated for years and the subject of legal challenges in past administrations. The state Supreme Court has ruled that those line-item veto powers are limited.
“I would want to more thoroughly research it … but when I read the bill with that in mind, it seemed the veto was unconstitutional based on the latest precedent in the Leflore County private prisons case,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. Bryan was referring to an early 2000s case when the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a partial by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of money going to private prisons.
Bryan, chair of the Senate Public Health Committee, was one of the key architects in the final days of June as legislators finished their work and adjourned after passing the bill to spend $130 million in funds to help health care providers, such as hospitals, and other entities, such as food pantries, with their work fighting the coronavirus. The money was part of $1.25 billion the state received in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Reeves vetoed $2 million lawmakers directed to the shuttered North Oak Regional Medical Center in Senatobia and $6 million earmarked to the MAGnet Community Health Center to study and try to combat health disparities, such as combating the high impact COVID-19 has inflicted on the African American community. The spending was part of a $130 million bill directing CARES Act money to Mississippi health care and hospitals.
Reeves argued the hospital should not receive the money because it was closed and thus not dealing with coronavirus patients. He also said he was not familiar with the group receiving the funds to try to curb health disparities.
The money for the Senatobia hospital would only be available if reopened before the end of the year. The hospital is located in the district of Republican House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar, who over the years has been at odds with Reeves over numerous issues, dating back to Reeves’ terms as lieutenant governor.
In the early 2000s, Musgrove vetoed a portion of the appropriations bill for the Department of Corrections that provided money to operate a private prison in Leflore County.
The court, in a 5-2 ruling, said the governor could not veto restrictions on how those funds were spent. In a complex legal opinion, the Court ruled that Musgrove would have had to vetoed the entire section of the bill providing funds for the Greenville prison.
Bryan was a plaintiff in the 1990s when the Supreme Court ruled then-Gov. Kirk Foridice unconstitutionally vetoed portions of both appropriations and bond bills issuing long-term debt for the state.