House Speaker Philip Gunn, center, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, right, talk after Gov. Tate Reeves’ press conference in Jackson on May 7, 2020.

Andy Taggart, a Madison County attorney representing leaders of the House of Representatives, told Supreme Court members that if they allow Gov. Tate Reeves’ partial veto of an appropriations bill to stand, they will reverse more than 120 years of court rulings and precedent.

The state’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday about Reeves’ partial veto this summer of a bill approved by the Mississippi Legislature that appropriated federal Coronavirus Aid, Recover and Economics Security (CARES) Act funds. Taggart argued that at least three major court cases — the first in the 1890s and then ensuing cases in the 1990s and 2000s — greatly limited the governor’s ability to issue partial vetoes.

But Michael Bentley, a Jackson attorney representing Reeves, said this case was different in multiple ways — one being that the governor issued the partial veto while the Legislature was in session, so members had the ability to override it. He said in the other cases, the partial vetoes were issued after the Legislature adjourned for the year.

Supreme Court Justices James Maxwell, Josiah Coleman and to a lesser extent Chief Justice Michael Randolph seemed to indicate in their questioning the fact the Legislature was in session when Reeves issued the partial veto was a distinction from the previous cases.

But Taggart argued it was a “distinction without a difference.” After all, Taggart pointed out, legislators have the right to take up any veto made while they are out of session when the next regular session begins and have often done so in the past.

The lawsuit, filed by Speaker Philip Gunn and House Pro Tem Jason White, is one of many instances this year — Reeves’ first as governor — where the Republican leadership of the Legislature and the Republican governor have clashed. They fought earlier this year over who had spending authority of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds the state received, though Reeves eventually acquiesced. In addition, Reeves opposed the Legislature’s successful efforts to retire the state flag that incorporated the Confederate battle emblem in its design, though he eventually signed the legislation.

In the instance of the veto, Bentley said, “The governor’s veto was a constitutional exercise of his authority to check the Legislature’s spending authority.”

Reeves’ partial veto covered lawmakers’ planned spending of $2 million for a shuttered Senatobia hospital contingent on it reopening in October and $6 million for Federal Qualified Health Centers in the state to work on health care disparities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those proposals were part of $91 million designated to the Department of Health to be appropriated to hospitals throughout the state and to other health care providers. Other portions of the bill disbursed money to the Department of Health and to other state agencies.

Taggart argued that under the state Constitution the governor could have vetoed the entire section appropriating money to the Department of Health or to one of the other state agencies receiving funds in the bill. But the Constitution, based on past court rulings, would not allow a governor to veto language expressing “a purpose and condition” of how the money should be spent. And designating money for the Senatobia hospital or for the Federally Qualified Health Centers was a purpose and condition, he argued.

Taggart urged the Supreme Court to rule quickly on the case since the CARES Act funds must be spent this year. Under the way the legislation was written, it most likely is too late for the money to be transferred to Senatobia County for the hospital, but it is not too late for money to be disbursed to work on health care disparity issues in the state.

Randolph said at the end of the more than one hour of oral arguments that the state Supreme Court would try to rule quickly on the issue, but that the Court was dealing with “difficult” issues in the case.

Justice Kenny Griffis was the only member of the Court not participating in the oral arguments. It is unclear whether Griffis will participate in a ruling on the case.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.