“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” – Gideon J. Tucker.
If it seems on Jan. 5, when the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature is convened, that it was not too long ago the 2020 session was adjourned, that’s because it’s true.
The 2020 session of the Mississippi Legislature that was slated to end in early May did not officially conclude until Oct. 10 in large part due to COVID-19 concerns, making it the longest legislative session in Mississippi history, at least in modern history.
So many issues, such as the coronavirus and the vote to retire the Jim Crow-era state flag, made the 2020 session unique and unprecedented — and long.
“It was truly a historic session,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said back in October.
As a new year approaches, a pertinent question remains: How long will legislators be in session in 2021? There are already discussions of convening on Jan. 5, as constitutionally mandated, and recessing until later in the year. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging. In addition, Gov. Tate Reeves has proposed eliminating roughly a third of the state’s revenue stream, the personal income tax. It is a proposal that could be contentious and time consuming for legislators.
Perhaps the Legislature stayed in session longer than it did in 2020 during the Civil War or during other crises in the distant past. But it has been the general consensus among veteran observers of the Mississippi Legislature that the longest session before 2020 occurred in 1968.
In 1968, legislators met from Jan. 2 until Aug. 9. In 2020, the Legislature was in session from Jan. 7 until Oct. 10. Now there is a strong likelihood that in 1968, like 2020, the Legislature was not meeting every day during that period. A matter of fact, for much of 2020 the Legislature was not at the Capitol in Jackson meeting, but was still technically in session where they could convene at the behest of House Speaker Philip Gunn and Hosemann, who presides over the Senate. The key is that when the Legislature adjourns sine die (for the year), it cannot under any circumstance come back until the next year unless summoned into special session by the governor. The Legislature just did not sine die in 2020 until October — meeting sporadically throughout the year.
The 1968 marathon session was preceded by unusually long sessions in 1966 and 1964. In 1966, the Legislature was in session from Jan. 4 until June 17, and from Jan. 7 until June 12 in 1964.
And to top it off, the Legislature was in special session from July 22 to Oct. 11 in 1969, when the state finally opted into the federal Medicaid program, becoming the next to last state to do so.
In more recent times, the longest session before the 2020 bonanza occurred in 2009, when legislators were in session from Jan. 6 until June 3.
The long sessions in the 1960s occurred at a time when the Legislature met every other year. After the two long sessions in 1964 and 1966, and in the midst of the 1968 session, legislators voted to put on the ballot a proposal to amend the Mississippi Constitution so that they would meet every year.
It seemed that Mississippi voters were not of one mind on the issue of the Legislature being in session annually. The resolution passed by the narrow margin of 51.3% to 48.7% in June of 1970, thus paving the way for the annual, regularly scheduled gathering of the Mississippi Legislature.
Perhaps as a form of compromise, the constitutional resolutions that legislators presented to voters limited the number of days legislators could be in session each year. The resolution, which is still in effect today, limits lawmakers to a 125-day session during the first year of a new four-year term for legislators. The following three years legislators are limited to 90-day sessions.
But leave it to those tricky legislators to add a loophole — there always seems to be a loophole — allowing them to extend the session in 30-day increments by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Presumably, legislators could keep extending the session for the entire year until the Legislature convenes the following year for a new term. Remember that legislators came close to being in session for all of 2020.
Before the 1970 change to the state Constitution, there was no limits on how long a session could be. Legislators apparently just met until they believed their business was completed, and they decided they could do no more good — or harm, depending on one’s perspective.