The 55,000 or so people in a Mississippi Senate district and 24,000 in a House district expect the lawmakers they send to Jackson to have a say in the policy and spending decisions the Legislature makes.
And largely they do, particularly as they gain seniority, committee assignments and chairmanships and learn the ropes of legislating.
But then, there are times when rank-and-file lawmakers need not even be there — they have about as much input as the furniture in the Capitol. Particularly, when there are standoffs and brinksmanship between the House and Senate leadership on major issues or spending, negotiations get pushed to deadlines or beyond.
Brinksmanship at the Capitol in the final weeks of a legislative session has been called a game of chicken, a game of who blinks first or even “let go of me or I’ll jump off this cliff.” What it often means is that most of the 174 lawmakers get the mushroom treatment during last-minute, back-room negotiations. Then the rank-and-file are force-fed the final deals at voting deadline by the leadership, often with little time to even read all the details before voting. The committee system goes out the window. Bills aren’t vetted. Mistakes get made. Democracy dies with deadline deals in the Mississippi statehouse.
Numerous lawmakers have complained over the last five years or so that they’re given the bum rush. A couple of times in the House, they’ve been asked to pass in committee bills that weren’t even written yet.
A standoff of epic proportions is brewing at the Capitol in the final weeks of the 2022 legislative session over House and Senate dueling income tax cut proposals. It is delaying, and could derail, one of the most important issues lawmakers have faced in a generation — how best to spend $1.8 billion in federal ARPA pandemic stimulus money.
For that matter, it portends that whatever income tax or elimination deal is brokered would be last minute by detente, not deliberation and analysis. That’s probably not the best way to adopt a sea change in the state’s tax structure.
It could also hang up many other measures, and even setting the state’s roughly $7 billion budget for next year.
Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn has made it no secret that he considers his proposal to eliminate the state personal income tax, along with raising sales taxes, the most important measure of his political career. In recent weeks, he’s made clear he’s willing to let other measures and spending die if the Senate doesn’t acquiesce.
Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, has pushed a much more modest income tax cut and rebates for taxpayers. Senate leaders say making a sea change elimination of one-third of the state’s revenue during uncertain economic times isn’t prudent and could crash the state budget.
Hosemann, who held Senate hearings on ARPA spending over the summer and fall, has made it no secret he sees spending the stimulus funds in “transformational” way on game-changing infrastructure statewide is his top priority. His main proposal is providing state matching funds for the federal stimulus local governments have received, in order to build larger, more transformational water, sewerage and other infrastructure projects. Proponents of this say Mississippi — already behind most other states in planning for or spending the ARPA funds — is burning daylight and leaving local governments in limbo on planning for large projects.
Although in the past he’s criticized Gunn’s tax plan as a “tax swap” because of its increase in sales taxes, Gov. Tate Reeves this week praised Gunn’s threat of an ARPA standoff as “a smart move,” saying, “The taxpayers should be the first to benefit when we have this much money.” It’s possible that if lawmakers blow end of session deadlines with tax cuts, ARPA spending or setting a budget, Reeves would force them back into special session over the summer. That, too, would results in major decisions being made by a handful of leaders with abbreviated debate and vetting.
Regardless, with the 2022 session scheduled to end in about three weeks, with so much as yet unfinished business, legislative leaders will have to scramble to reach deals.
And the rank-and-file elected lawmakers will probably not have a lot of input on what those deals look like.
READ MORE: The Mississippi Republican income tax bet