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Conferencing, the strange period of the legislative session, has begun — a time when rank-and-file members have little chance of influencing the process and especially the budgeting process.
As the budget conferencing process starts, legislators are sitting on an unprecedented revenue surplus of more than $2 billion, but most members will have little say in how those funds are spent.
Conferencing occurs when three members from each chamber — House members appointed by Speaker Philip Gunn and Senate members named by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann — meet to hammer out differences in legislation. The meetings normally occur behind closed doors.
When agreement is reached, the rank-and-file members from each chamber have the choice of:
- Approving that compromise and sending it to Gov. Tate Reeves for his signature.
- Sending it back for additional negotiations.
- Killing the proposal.
During conferencing, rank-and-file members cannot offer amendments to the proposals like they can earlier in the session.
In addition, there is tremendous pressure for legislators to approve the compromise to keep the legislative train on the tracks. After all, the session is scheduled to end April 3, and sending a bill back for additional negotiations risks the possibility of delaying the end of the session.
Rank-and-file legislators, at least, have the option earlier in the process to have influence over most general proposals because they can offer amendments to the bills both in committee and on the floors of the House and Senate.
Those rank-and-file lawmakers, though, do not have unencumbered options to offer amendments to budget bills — the bills that fund state agencies and services. In reality, they have virtually no ability to exert influence over the budgeting process. Members gave up that right in 2012 when Republicans took over both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since the 1800s.
At that time, the legislative leaders — Speaker Gunn and then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presided over the Senate and is now governor — pushed through rules changes that essentially thwarted any influence rank-and-file members had over budgeting, which is perhaps the most important duty legislators have.
The rules change approved by legislators in 2012 gave the two presiding officers more power — at least over the budgeting process — than perhaps any presiding officers in the state’s history.
The change prohibits members from offering amendments to appropriations bills unless they cite from what agency they are taking the money. If a member wants to provide additional money to the Department of Public Safety, for instance, to deal with the years-long backlog in performing autopsies, they must cite from which agency those additional funds are being taken.
And to make the process more complicated, the money must be taken from a budget bill that is before the chamber at that time.
It is important to understand that each chamber takes up and passes half of the more than 100 bills funding state agencies and commissions and then exchanges bills with the other chamber. The House will send their appropriations bills to the Senate and vice versa.
If a member of the House wants to increase funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, for instance, to provide additional funds to the local school districts and desires to take funds from the Department of Transportation to do so, the member cannot if the Transportation bill is in the Senate at the time instead of the House.
The further lunacy of the rules change is especially evident this year, when the state has an unprecedented revenue surplus totaling about one-third of the entire state support budget of about $6 billion. The rules dictating the options the rank-and-file members have in influencing the budget process do not allow them to offer an amendment to take any of the historically large amount of surplus funds to add money to education, health care, law enforcement or to any other budget.
In essence, only the leadership — the presiding officers and the House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairs — have the authority to use those surplus funds.
Sure, rank-and-file members could flex their collective muscle and send appropriations bills back to conference for further negotiations and send a message that they want more of the surplus funds to go to education or to some other agency. But given the short time frame between when members vote on those compromise proposals and the scheduled end of the session, members generally have been unwilling to take such bold action.
The end result is that the session has entered a period where most rank-and-file members are just sitting around waiting to rubber stamp what the leadership puts before them. In 2012, the members gave the leadership that power by voting in the restrictive rules change.
And they have not tried to change the rule in recent years to regain the power they used to have.