Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter below for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
A politician with more power than anyone in the state can have what he thinks is a good policy idea. But without decent relationships with other power brokers in Jackson, the idea will never survive the legislative gauntlet.
It takes savvy and skill to move policy through the Capitol, but the most important factor is relationships. The best ones in Jackson are built over time, during hard-fought battles and over late-night steak dinners. The worst ones jeopardize major legislative proposals and kill chances to make Mississippi a better place.
Any given legislative session, the relationship between a speaker and lieutenant governor is the most important in Mississippi politics. Some of the most transformative legislation this state has seen was passed because these two leaders were on the same page.
On the other hand, some of the most epic political fights in the state’s history have occurred between these two leaders. Party affiliation and the will of voters often mean nothing in this relationship; instead, large egos and defiant personalities often bubble to the surface.
We’ve now had two years to see how Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann work together. But as major policy proposals loom over the potentially historic 2022 legislative session, where does their relationship stand today?
Here’s what several politicos and lawmakers said about it.
This week, Philip Gunn enters his 11th year as speaker — the third-longest tenured Speaker of the House in Mississippi’s history. Delbert Hosemann is still a new lieutenant governor, though his first two years have certainly been formative.
To this point, Gunn’s experience has clearly given him the upper hand at the Capitol. He is decisive and he’s built strong coalitions. Gunn and his top lieutenants in the House have built relationships with Democratic and Black Caucus leaders and even Senate leaders over many years. Some of those Senate relationships may even trump the ones that they have with Hosemann, their own presiding officer. Gunn has a caucus of House uber-conservatives who dislike him, but their bloc is small and ineffectual.
Hosemann, meanwhile, has appeared passive and indecisive at times during his first two years. He and his staff are still learning how the building works, and legislators of all parties on both sides of the building have picked up on that. He also has a handful of Republican senators who have remained close with Gov. Tate Reeves, who preceded Hosemann as lieutenant governor. Several times, that reality has created tension and uncertainty within the Senate Republican caucus about key Hosemann proposals.
There has been some tension between Gunn and Hosemann mostly behind closed doors, but nothing that proved detrimental to major policy proposals. The two meet and talk regularly, having become especially close during 2021. Sources from both sides say their relationship entering the 2022 session is as good as it’s ever been.
But several politicos are on the lookout for some erosion of their relationship this session.
Gunn’s top agenda item this session is eliminating the personal income tax, which accounts for about one-third of the state’s general fund revenue. Hosemann has never been a big fan of this proposal for several reasons, though he has been having regular talks with the speaker about how it could work.
Gunn wants to raise some other taxes to offset the revenue holes this tax cut would leave, but sources say Hosemann remains skeptical about whether this tax cut during the rare time Mississippi is flush with cash is the best long-term move for the state. If Gunn doesn’t get cooperation from Hosemann on the tax cut, how will that affect many of Hosemann’s priorities? Some in the Capitol fear broad policy gridlock between the House and Senate if the two can’t agree on some variation of Gunn’s income tax cut proposal.
In the upper chamber, Hosemann has made his top priority the spending of Mississippi’s historic surplus in revenues, bolstered by federal stimulus cash. He’s toured the state in recent months — visiting more than 50 of the state’s 82 counties — talking to local leaders about how lawmakers should spend their $1.8 billion pot of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Hosemann wants to take the best ideas of local government leaders and match the funding with American Rescue Act Plan funds that the state received. Additionally, he’s privately told state agency heads and other government leaders that he can get their wish-lists funded. He’s done all of this, seemingly, without Gunn’s blessing.
Gunn seems to be fine slow rolling the federal spending. He has said publicly that lawmakers have several years to spend the funds, so there’s no need to rush. That hasn’t seemed to sit well with Hosemann, who believes the financial need across the state is great and the time to spend the funds is now.
There are many other examples of the two leaders being seemingly out of sync on policy ideas, but none are bigger than these two — the top priorities for both. And given how much both leaders have worked on and publicly touted them, there might not be much room for compromise on either plan.
The consensus among political observers is that if we look back on the 2022 session and see that Gunn and Hosemann’s relationship began to unravel, these are the two issues that we’ll have to examine most closely.