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Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Last year, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn was poised to kill the most popular legislation of the session — a pay raise for the lowest-paid teachers in America — over one thing: his proposal to eliminate Mississippi’s personal income tax.
Gunn’s defiance led to a standoff with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann late on a key deadline day in March 2021.
The run-in serves as a reminder that the possibility of drama between the two leaders — and possibly even legislative gridlock between the House and Senate — looms large in the 2022 legislative session.
As Gunn again puts his full energy behind his tax proposal this session and Hosemann continues to say he won’t support it, are major policy ideas from both leaders in trouble?
Early in the 2021 session, the House passed a bill that would increase teacher salaries. Likewise, the Senate had passed their own bill that would increase teacher salaries. The tiff between Gunn and Hosemann occurred on the March 2021 deadline day for leaders to pass bills that originated in the opposite chamber.
That day, Gunn let the Senate’s teacher pay bill die. Notably, he had tacked on a teacher pay raise to what he considered the most meaningful legislation of his political career: his plan to completely restructure the state’s tax system. That plan would have eliminated the state’s personal income tax, cut the grocery tax in half and raised the sales tax and other taxes.
But Gunn’s tax proposal was met with swift public criticism by Hosemann and other Senate leaders. Hosemann warned of “unintended consequences” of passing a bill that was not vetted by key constituent groups and scored by economists.
Education groups, getting word of the deadline day theatrics, blistered legislative leadership.
“While being used as a bargaining chip is something to which we’ve become accustomed, it still stings,” said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.
When Senate leaders got word that day that Gunn had killed their standalone teacher pay bill, Hosemann and Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar indicated they would return the favor and kill the House’s standalone teacher pay bill. But that would’ve meant the best remaining chance for teachers to get a pay raise in 2021 would be through Gunn’s tax bill, which Hosemann strongly opposed.
Sometime after Mississippi Today broke that news on deadline day, Hosemann and DeBar thought better of killing the House pay raise bill and passed it out of committee. Later in the session, Gunn finally faced the music and conceded that his tax plan would not pass. Ultimately, the House bill that Senate leaders passed in the eleventh hour of that deadline day was what gave teachers the pay raise.
History has a way of repeating itself. Listening to Gunn and Hosemann discuss their major goals during the first week of the 2022 legislative session, that notion feels especially true.
On the first day of the new session, Gunn again insisted his tax proposal is his very top priority. Hosemann, when asked about that tax proposal, again discounted its chances of passing but hinted that the Senate was working on their own bill that would provide “tax relief.”
Gunn and Hosemann share most major goals for the 2022 legislative session. They both want to again address teacher pay, they want to reenact a ballot initiative process and they want to do something — well, we think — on medical marijuana.
Then there’s the all important 10-year redrawing of legislative districts, and the spending of billions in excess state and federal revenues on projects that could positively affect the state for generations to come.
There are plenty of issues the two leaders will need to reach consensus on. But Gunn’s plan to eliminate the income tax — and his insistence that he gets the Senate support he wants — could throw a wrench in it all.