Lawmakers could postpone the 2021 legislative session due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislative leaders are discussing whether to postpone the bulk of the 2021 legislative session until later in the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mandates of the state Constitution require the Legislature to convene the 2021 session on Jan. 5, 2021. Discussions have been held on convening that day, addressing some time sensitives issues and recessing until a later date. Early March has been discussed as a possible time to reconvene, according to sources close to legislative leaders.

It does not appear a decision has been reached on recessing the session. There also appears to be some major opposition to the proposal.

“I just don’t see us doing that, not while schools are open and teachers and others are working,” said House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach. “I think the Legislature needs to be working, too.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, were not available for comment Friday on the possible early recess.

In recent days, COVID-19 infections in the state have exceeded past peaks, resulting in many of the state’s largest hospitals, including in the Jackson area, exceeding capacity.

Having 174 legislators and all the additional personnel associated with a legislative session meeting in Jackson could result in a sizable increase in coronavirus cases. During this year’s session, scores of legislators and staff, including Gunn and Hosemann, contracted the coronavirus while in session at the Capitol.

“Obviously, there is great concern with the ICU bed situation in the Jackson area and we would not want to do anything to contribute to that problem,” said Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi. “The safety of our membership and the public is the greatest concern and priority.’

Whenever the Legislature meets in 2021, there are expected to be extraordinary safety precautions in place. For instance, the House leadership has already opted to suspend its page program for the upcoming session.

Postponing the bulk of the session until March possibly could provide time for a COVID-19 vaccine to become available, theoretically reducing the risk of spreading the virus. In addition, it would give legislators more time to look at state tax collections to gather more information on the amount of revenue that would be available to craft a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. There remains uncertainty on how the pandemic will impact the economy in the coming months and thus affect revenue collections.

In 2020, as the coronavirus began to surge in March, the Legislature took a long break and ultimately remained in session until October dealing with issues surrounding COVID-19. The legislative session was scheduled to end in early May in 2020.

In 2021, the session is scheduled to conclude in April. To extend the session past the scheduled end date (known as sine die), a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in each chamber must agree. If the decision is made in January to recess until a later date, that also will require a two-thirds vote.

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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.