Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn is still privately telling donors and political advisers he’s considering a 2023 run for governor against Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves.
That’s why Jackson politicos have been closely watching Gunn during this 2022 legislative session. They’ve wondered whether the third-term speaker would use the final legislative session before the election year to show strong leadership — the kind of leadership that inspires and brings political factions together, that brings about lasting and positive change for the state.
After all, Gunn and others say that Reeves has long lacked such qualities dating back to his two terms as lieutenant governor. If Gunn wanted to make a name for himself and launch a viable statewide campaign against an incumbent, he needed to set himself apart from Reeves during the pivotal first three months of this year.
But so far this session, Gunn has done nothing of the sort. He looks more like a spitting image of Reeves in his Capitol days: a stubborn bully, quick to kill bills that he and his allies didn’t write because he can’t get his way.
And in the shock of the 2022 legislative session thus far, Gunn has begun aligning himself with Reeves to intimidate Republican senators into supporting a bill they don’t like.
Gunn’s dug-in heels ahead of Wednesday’s major deadline signals that he will not let any spending bills — including the historic $1.8 billion in American Rescue Act Plan funds — pass unless Senate Republicans commit to supporting his proposal to completely eliminate the state’s personal income tax.
“I am of the belief that if we can’t get this tax elimination done in the next two weeks, the governor should call a special session to eliminate the income tax before we spend a dime of other money … (American Rescue Plan Act) money, capital expense fund money, anything,” Gunn said on Feb. 28. “The governor has been very supportive of elimination and this issue. He shares our view that we don’t spend money until such time as we give the taxpayers some tax relief… We hope the governor would call a special session on income tax elimination.”
READ MORE: 5 things to know about the Great Mississippi Tax Cut Battle of 2022
Reeves, whose political aides have nervously stalked Gunn’s every move for months, is relishing the speaker’s public invitation to help get income tax elimination across the finish line.
“I’m impressed by the improvements (the House has) made, and I’m impressed they have a true plan to eliminate the state income tax,” Reeves said in a press conference last week. “I’m very reluctant to call special sessions … but elimination of the income tax is an issue that certainly could rise to that level. I am not taking that option off the table.”
Gunn’s best idea to set himself apart during the 2022 legislative session was to pass a complete elimination of the income tax — a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that would certainly play well among Republican voters on the statewide campaign trail in 2023.
But after struggling to earn buy-in from Republican senators, Gunn has become so desperate that he’s willing to ask Reeves for help and hand his arch-rival the political gift of a lifetime: the chance to take full credit for Gunn’s best idea.
READ MORE: House offers ‘compromise’ teacher pay raise, but Senate says it wasn’t in on the compromising
It’s enticing to consider the 2023 ramifications of this moment, but the speaker’s holding hostage the ARPA funds will dominate news cycles for at least the next three weeks. Lawmakers have until 2024 to spend the $1.8 billion pot, but that deadline means little to the many Mississippians who need the money now.
Cities and counties have been holding off spending their own small pots of ARPA money on long overdue road, water and sewerage repairs because there have been indications from lawmakers that a state match could be coming their way. The Senate passed a $750 million state match program for local governments to spend on these projects.
Hospital leaders and nurses are desperate for relief as they come off a fourth COVID-19 wave. The Senate passed a $12 million plan to address that.
Several state agencies have major needs and lost revenue during the pandemic. The Senate passed a $211.4 million plan that would provide infrastructure upgrades to state agencies, including $26.5 million for work on various state buildings. The Senate also passed a $110 million plan for water and sewerage projects at universities and community colleges, and a $250 million plan to reimbursement for lost state revenue from the pandemic.
The state’s teacher shortage crisis will drastically worsen after this school year in large part because of growing mental health crises among faculty and students. The Senate passed a $105 million plan to address several mental health issues across the state.
Many Mississippians can’t work because they can’t find or afford child care, and others face evictions and foreclosures because of the economic effects of the pandemic. Many states have used ARPA funds to help child care centers expand and help protect people who may lose their homes.
All of these Senate spending proposals are among the many in jeopardy between now and the end of the session as Gunn struggles to garner support for his tax cut plan that some — including Republican senators — say could drastically harm the state’s economy in the long run.
Meanwhile, as Gunn continues to create drama at the Capitol, at least one person in downtown Jackson is already reaping political benefits of the moment — and it might just get him reelected as governor.
READ MORE: Senate reluctantly takes House bill to ensure passage of teacher pay raise