The Mississippi Legislature’s 2021 session, perhaps fittingly, ended on a miscue Thursday, with the House and Senate having to come in even though they had no real business left to tend because of disagreement between the chambers on whether rules would have allowed them to leave Wednesday.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, who said lawmakers should have been able to leave on Wednesday, even played an April Fools’ practical joke, telling the few members of the House that showed up for the anticlimactic close that there were “more problems over there” in the Senate and lawmakers would have to return Friday.
The session saw frequent disagreement or apparent lack of communication between the GOP House and Senate leadership — and Republican governor — and some major legislation was left on the cutting room floor.
Notably, Gunn’s plan to eliminate the state personal income tax and increase sales taxes — which Gunn has repeatedly called the most important legislation he’s ever dealt with — died without even a hearing in the Senate. Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and other Senate leaders said they were caught unaware by the sea-change legislation late in the session and didn’t have time to vet it.
The House killed one of Hosemann’s top-priorities: an overhaul of the state’s economic development incentives used to lure businesses or help them expand.
The Senate GOP expended much energy to pass a legislative-controlled medical marijuana program, an alternative to the program passed by voters in November, or a “backstop” should a legal challenge to the marijuana voter initiative prove successful. The House rejected it.
The House unsuccessfully proposed removing Medicaid from the governor’s authority, without the Senate on board for such a huge policy change. The Senate attempted to take lottery funds from state transportation and give it to local governments, undoing the work of a monumental special session in 2018. The House wasn’t onboard with that major shift.
Numerous other proposals died, or were the subject of intense debate and back-and-forth alterations this session, causing many politicos to question whether the state’s GOP leaders, despite having a Republican supermajority in the House and Senate, can get on the same page.
And it remains to be seen whether Republican Reeves will break out his veto stamp like he did last year — resulting in recriminations from GOP legislative leaders, an unsuccessful legal challenge from Gunn over the governor’s authority and much dead legislation. This included major criminal justice reform to address the state’s prison overcrowding and high incarceration rates, including expansion of parole eligibility that lawmakers passed again this year with hopes it will meet muster with the governor and law enforcement lobbies.
But Gunn and Hosemann on Thursday downplayed such internecine Republican squabbling or apparent lack of communication — although both voiced disappointment over measures the other chamber killed.
Both pointed out that they’ve met every Tuesday this session. They focused on accomplishments, including passage of a $1,000 teacher pay raise and setting a budget without the cuts of past years as state coffers are flush and the economy is percolating. Both proclaimed that members of their respective chambers — Republican and Democrat alike — got along swimmingly this session.
“Like any relationship, they can be improved,” said Hosemann. “That being said, we are in constant communication. I spoke with (Gunn) at least twice yesterday (about ending the session) … The fact that something I champion, like (economic incentives overhaul) didn’t go, or the tax swap didn’t go does not mean they’re out of whack. I think both of those will be considered next year and probably both approved.”
Gunn said: “The lieutenant governor and I meet every Tuesday morning, and we can meet on a moment’s notice, and I have regular conversations with the chief of staff for the governor … All of us communicate when we need to.”
But in their post-session debriefing with press on Thursday, they appeared to diverge on a perennial issue: Whether Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, should expand Medicaid — with the federal government footing most of the bill — to provide health care to hundreds of thousands of working-poor uninsured people and help the state’s struggling hospitals.
“I am not open to Medicaid expansion,” Gunn said. “We cannot afford it, and there are numerous other reasons … Taxpayers cannot afford it.”
Hosemann said: “We have to look in Mississippi at the delivery of health care. That is important.”
Hosemann didn’t say the words “Medicaid expansion,” but indicated he’s open to discussion and will have top Senate leaders studying health care delivery and access issues out of session.
“I certainly don’t want to get bogged down by a moniker — saying I’m against this without looking at something when, if you really look at it, you may not be against that,” Hosemann said. “You may just be against some moniker.”