The Mississippi Legislature, trying to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus, will meet in what is expected to be a pared down joint session Tuesday afternoon for Gov. Tate Reeves to deliver the annual State of the State speech.

The speech is scheduled to be delivered on the south steps of the state Capitol, but will be moved to the House chamber if there is inclement weather.

Both presiding officers, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, will be on hand to officiate as well as the House and Senate committee (three from each chamber) to escort the governor to the joint session.

But the State of the State, in the COVID-19 environment, is expected to take place without the pomp and circumstance that normally surrounds the event.

Gunn said on Monday that he knows scant details about the governor’s State of the State address plans.

“I’m told that I need to show up, bang the gavel and introduce the bugler – it is my understanding there will be a bugler,” Gunn said. “I don’t know who all is coming to it … It’s really up to them, the governor’s office, on how they are going to do it.”

“The governor has requested no audience,” Hosemann said.

On Monday afternoon, the Senate approved the House resolution, passed Friday, authorizing the joint session.

The state Constitution simply instructs the governor “from time to time” to provide information to the Legislature on “the state of the government and recommend for consideration such measurers so may be deemed necessary and expedient.” That constitutional mandate has become the more elaborate State of the State speech that is attended by various representatives of state government, not only from the legislative but also from the judicial and executive branches.

Gunn on Monday gaveled the House to order – via Zoom – and presided over a mostly empty chamber. Only two lawmakers, the speaker pro tempore and Rules Committee chairman were present in the chamber that normally holds a boisterous crowd of 122 lawmakers. Beforehand, about 15 lawmakers were in the chamber, but Gunn asked them to leave before gaveling in.

“My request last week was that no one be in the chamber,” Gunn told the handful of legislators who were at their desks. “Obviously, if we let one of you come in here, we’ll have to let all, and then we will lose our social distancing … We are attempting to comply with the request made by Dr. Dobbs (the state health officer).”

Gunn noted after he gaveled out the brief Zoom session that it was strange looking over a mostly empty chamber.

“It was mighty quiet in here, wasn’t it?” Gunn said.

As an aside to the couple of staff present after he closed Monday’s session, he said, “That seemed to go well enough – maybe we need to conduct all our business that way.”

House committee meetings on Monday were likewise held via Zoom, and broadcast on YouTube. Gunn said there were a few “glitches,” such as members not finding the meeting links sent to them, but “For our maiden voyage it was rather smooth.”

“I’ve not heard any word that business was not able to be conducted in the committees,” Gunn said.

But some lawmakers are still questioning the new pandemic protocols and whether business is being properly and fairly conducted.

“With us bypassing all the initial phases of the process – yes I have some concern,” said Rep. Charles Young Jr., D-Meridian. “You don’t have the option of being able to oppose any of the process like you normally would … I think we should have made more accommodations to uphold our process. You can’t just kill the process, but that’s what we are doing.”

The Senate also is conducting committee meetings via Zoom, but members are not being barred from participating in person when the chamber is in full session or when in committee.

Reeves speech will be carried live on multiple outlets, including WMPN public television and via the airwaves and internet by WJTV television in Jackson.

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.