Legislators avoid catastrophe despite large COVID-19 outbreak among their ranks

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Lawmakers wear masks during the legislative session at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, May 28, 2020.

The ongoing 2020 session has been like no other — to a large extent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to a lesser degree because of the ongoing donnybrook between Gov. Tate Reeves and legislative leaders.

But thus far it has not been catastrophic. It could have bordered on catastrophe if the COVID-19 outbreak that besieged the Legislature, beginning in early July, had occurred two weeks earlier.

On July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year, legislators completed their task of approving a $21 billion budget to fund state government — everything from education to transportation to law enforcement. The enactment of a budget by the Legislature is a massive task, entailing the approval of more than 100 bills and the work of a dozen or more staff members.

Normally the budgeting process is completed in March or April or, in some instances, early May. But because of an interruption in the session in March caused by the coronavirus, the Legislature was completing the process just as the new budget year began.

Had the Capitol COVID-19 outbreak occurred a week or two earlier, it would have been difficult — nearly impossible — to complete the budgeting process in a timely fashion, throwing into question the function of various agencies such as whether health care providers could have been paid for treating Medicaid patients, whether Highway Patrol troopers could have patrolled Mississippi roads, and the list goes on.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs recently said during a call with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute and Capitol Press Corps that 49 of the 175 legislators, including the lieutenant governor, contracted the coronavirus — most testing positive almost immediately after the Legislature adjourned on July 1. According to Dobbs, four were hospitalized, including three in intensive care. Tragically, there was one death of a person who presumably contracted the virus from a legislator. Those testing positive included House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and some key committee chairs.

While the Legislature finished the budget before being overwhelmed by the virus, as it turned out, the governor partially vetoed the $2.5 billion education budget, and the Legislature has not been able to agree on a budget for the Gulf Coast-located Department of Marine Resources. Those issues have created enough chaos. Imagine the chaos if the whole budgeting process had been delayed two weeks or more into the new budget year because of the coronavirus.

Last week a near coronavirus-free and mostly masked-up Legislature returned to Jackson to override Reeves’ veto of the education budget. The veto override itself was historic in that it was the first since 2002 and was the first time at least since the 1800s a Republican governor had been overridden by a Republican-controlled Legislature.

And to add more oddity to an already unusual session, it was revealed just before legislators returned to Jackson that Gunn and House Speaker Pro Tem Jason White are suing fellow Republican Reeves, arguing the governor’s partial veto of a bill disbursing funds to health care providers to fight the coronavirus is unconstitutional. The lawsuit is in addition to the very public spat between legislative leaders and the governor over who had spending authority of $1.25 billion in federal funds disbursed to Mississippi to fight the coronavirus.

The Legislature, which won that fight, was disbursing many of those funds right up to July 1 when members adjourned. It would have been embarrassing if the coronavirus outbreak had prevented legislators from making those disbursements.

But in reality nothing would have prevented legislators from returning after the COVID-19 outbreak had run its course amongst legislators to appropriate the funds. After all, much to the governor’s dismay, legislators have changed rules allowing them to stay in session for almost the full year, though in reality they are in Jackson essentially the same number of days they would be in a normal year. Their days in Jackson are just more spread out.

Despite the pandemic and the ongoing rift with the governor, the Legislature has accomplished some monumental feats during this unusual session. Those feats include:

  • Removing the 126-year-old state flag that featured the controversial Confederate battle emblem in its design.
  • Spending $75 million to improve internet access in rural areas.
  • Placing on the November ballot a resolution to remove from the state Constitution a white supremacist-inspired provision that could throw statewide elections to the House to decide, even if a candidate obtained a majority vote.

On a side note, the bill changing the flag also could have been placed in jeopardy if the coronavirus had hit legislators earlier.

For many reasons, the 2020 session is unusual and historic. And it is not over yet.