If reaching consensus had always been required to call a Mississippi special session, many critical policies never would have passed. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves is adamant that he will not call a special session to enact medical marijuana and to fix the ballot initiative process until legislative leadership reaches a consensus on how to deal with the separate but related issues.

In May, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down medical marijuana, a ballot initiative approved by voters this past November, and the entire initiative process. The court ruled the ballot initiative process invalid because language in the Constitution requires signatures to place an issue on the ballot be gathered equally from five congressional districts. The state has had only four U.S. House districts since the 2000 Census.

Both House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, seem to support the governor’s position and are apparently trying to reach that consensus so the oft-discussed special session can be called.

Even Sen. Hob Bryan, the Democrat from Amory who often disagrees with the governor and who chairs the Public Health Committee where a medical marijuana bill would originate, concurs that a special session should not be called until consensus is reached.

“If I was governor, I would not call one before then,” Bryan said earlier this month. Bryan’s Senate Public Health Committee held a hearing recently to try to determine what should be entailed in legislation to legalize medical marijuana.

Not holding a special session until there is consensus, no doubt, is good fiscal policy to prevent legislators from being in prolonged session costing taxpayers more money.

But if reaching consensus had always been required to call a special session, some important special sessions never would have occurred. Accomplishments in those special sessions called without a consensus include:

  • Enacting public kindergartens and other education reforms in 1982.
  • Changing the laws in both 2002 and 2004 to make it more difficult to file lawsuits against businesses.
  • Providing a deficit appropriation to the Division of Medicaid in 2005 to prevent the shutdown of the program.

The list goes on and on. Whether those special sessions resulted in positive results for the state is in the eye of the beholder, but they did create significant change. Often the pressure of being in a special session compels legislators to reach a consensus.

The special session always cited as what can happen when legislators meet with no consensus is the 83-day special session in 2002 on changes to the civil justice system to limit the ability to file lawsuits against businesses. Trial attorneys and business group waged a bitter war in the special session called by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. That battle established unique circumstances that led to what seemed like a never-ending special session. It is unlikely that many issues would result in similar circumstances and a similar special session.

The biggest drawback to special sessions, of course, is the cost. Legislators receive $75 per day while in special session plus a daily per diem for expenses, based on the federal rate, which is around $150 per day. Adding in retirement, the total comes out to more than $35,000 a day.

In reality, it would be cheaper to just remain in regular session year-round as legislators are allowed to do constitutionally by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. Legislators remained in session most of 2020 as they gave themselves the option to return to Jackson to deal with COVID-19 and other issues. House leaders wanted to remain in session again in 2021. The Senate balked at the idea.

It is important to note than being in session — special or regular session — but not actually convened at the state Capitol does not cost the state extra.

From a legislative standpoint, there are two advantages of staying in regular session: It takes power away from the governor to call a special session and to set the agenda, and it is less expensive to return to Jackson in regular session than in special session.

One of the most significant accomplishments to occur in a special session where there was no consensus happened in 1969 when Gov. John Bell Williams called a special session to try to convince legislators to opt into the federal Medicaid program. As a U.S. congressman, Williams had voted against the program and railed against the overreach of the federal government. But as governor, Williams saw Medicaid as a program that could help improve health care access.

The Legislature eventually bought into Williams’ argument and opted into the federal-state health care program. But it was not easy. The Legislature was in session from July 22 to Oct. 10.

Many would argue the results of that special session — a Medicaid program — was worth the effort and expense. The question for Reeves and legislators this year might be whether a special session to enact medical marijuana and fix the initiative process is worth it if there is no consensus.

READ MORE: Is history repeating itself on Medicaid expansion in Mississippi?

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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.