When the Mississippi Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday, it will mark the final time for House Speaker Philip Gunn to gavel to order a regular session.
The 2023 regular legislative session will be the swan song for Gunn’s historic tenure as speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
The Clinton Republican has announced he will not seek reelection for a sixth term in the House in 2023. He will leave office as the first Republican speaker since the 1800s, as the third longest serving speaker in state history and as the guiding force of legislation in 2020 retiring the state flag that incorporated the Confederate battle emblem prominently in its design.
He also is one of the leading architects of a legislative rule that arguably gives the leaders of the House and Senate unprecedented power over the budgeting process.
The question is whether that rule — one of the Legislature’s most authoritative rules in recent history — will end with Gunn’s retirement.
That rule strips away nearly all, if not all, of the power for rank-and-file legislators to have a say in carrying out their most basic function: deciding how to appropriate state funds.
The rule requires a member wanting to offer an amendment to increase funding for a program or agency — such as the Department of Health to deal with the state’s ongoing litany of health woes — to specify from what agency the money will be taken.
On the surface, the rule seems logical and fair. After all, legislators should not be spending money the state does not have. But the rule, as it was crafted in 2012 when Gunn was first elected speaker by his colleagues, severely limits the pot of money a rank-and-file legislator can consider when making an amendment to increase funding for the Health Department, for education or for any other agency. The rank-and-file legislator, for instance, could not make the amendment to spend any of the $4 billion dollars in reserves the state currently has for a program the legislator believes needs more funds to deal with a crisis.
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, 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.
Republicans took complete control of the Mississippi Legislature in 2012. The budgeting amendment was incorporated into the joint rules of the Legislature that year by the two new presiding officers — Gunn in the House and then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate.
Interestingly, when reporters told the late Terry Brown, at the time the new Senate president pro tem, about the House plan to enact the budget rule, the Columbus Republican who had plenty of conservative bona fides flashed his mischievous smile and said the rule would not be taken up in the upper chamber. He said senators would not support a rule to severely limit their say in the process. A day later, presumably after meeting with Reeves, Brown was advocating for the amendment.
It passed both chambers and since then legislators have acted basically like lemmings when it comes to the budget process, passing what legislative leadership presents to them during the waning days of each legislative session.
In 2024 there will be a new speaker of the House. The favorite to replace Gunn is House Pro Tem Jason White, R-West. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann will be the heavy favorite to win reelection as presiding officer of the Senate.
Hosemann was not lieutenant governor when the budgeting rule was enacted, and during his first term as the presiding officer he has at times displayed more of a willingness to let the members of the Senate have a say in the legislative process.
With Hosemann still in office and a new speaker in place, members could flex their collective muscle to demand a change to the rule.
But first, legislators will serve another year under a process where they have little or no say in how state funds are spent.