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Every so often in Mississippi politics, there are moments for unexpected heroics — cracked windows of opportunity when someone stands up to lead and does something so brave that it’s remembered for years down the road.
For the next 36 hours or so, one little-known elected official will be sitting alone, squarely in front of that window. He has to decide whether to reach out and open it or let it fall closed.
State Rep. Joey Hood, a 46-year-old Republican from Ackerman, could buck his party leaders and pass a policy that more than two-thirds of Mississippi voters want, that every major medical association in the state wants, that the majority of the GOP-led Senate wants, and that the majority of his GOP-led House wants.
Passing postpartum Medicaid extension would increase health coverage for new, poor mothers from two months to 12 months. It’s a common-sense deal passed by dozens of other states that would tremendously help moms and kids in Mississippi, which boasts one of the highest maternal mortality rates and the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. And it would cost the state just $7 million per year — a drop in the bucket given our current $3.9 billion surplus.
Despite its broad popularity and clear need, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn continues to block it, saying he doesn’t support Medicaid expansion in any form and doesn’t see the health benefits of providing health care to the mothers. And Gov. Tate Reeves, who legislative leaders say could sign the policy into effect himself without their approval, reversed his long opposition on Sunday and said he wants lawmakers to pass it.
But Hood, a husband and father of two young boys, could take matters into his own hands this week. The Senate bill that would extend postpartum Medicaid, which passed overwhelmingly earlier this session, was assigned to the House Medicaid Committee, which Gunn appointed Hood to lead. The bill must pass out of his committee by midnight on Tuesday, Feb. 28, to stay alive.
In the past three terms, Gunn has corralled nearly complete power over bills that enter the House of Representatives. He demands loyalty from his committee chairs and has strategically created an “inner circle” of Republicans most faithful to him. That way if Gunn wants a certain bill to die, he knows his hand-picked chairs will dutifully follow his lead, keeping the bill from being debated in their committee until it dies a quiet and unseemly death at deadline.
Hood, first elected in 2011, is indeed one of Gunn’s “inner circle” Republican chairs and a most loyal soldier. That was evident earlier this session when Hood refused to call a Medicaid Committee meeting, ensuring his House colleagues would not have the chance to even debate the House version of postpartum Medicaid extension.
But whether the speaker likes it or not, Hood possesses the power to place the Senate bill on his committee’s calendar for debate and consideration this week. The speaker, who reiterated last week he does not support postpartum Medicaid extension, cannot legally stop Hood from bringing the bill up in his committee. And if Hood brings it up before his committee, it would almost certainly pass, based on the Mississippi Today survey of House members.
So why would Hood go so directly against Gunn’s wishes? Why is this deadline different? Why is there a cracked window of opportunity?
Because for the first time in 12 years, Gunn’s power is waning in a very real way. The speaker announced last fall he would not seek reelection to his House seat, meaning this current legislative session is his last not just as speaker but in the Legislature. He’s as lame a duck as there is in politics.
Entering this session, there was broad speculation about how Gunn’s final year on High Street might play out. There’s been some behind-the-scenes power positioning happening, with several longtime House Republicans maneuvering to become the next Speaker of the House. But the heir apparent to the speakership is state Rep. Jason White, who has been Gunn’s right-hand man for several years.
Last week, the lame duck reality became clear when House Republicans handed Gunn what must be the single most bitter defeat of his career. At least 25 House Republicans blocked what he calls the single biggest goal of his political life: eliminating the Mississippi income tax. To make matters worse for Gunn, the stand came in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting — a setting famously used by the speaker for years as a power tool to whip votes for his desired policies.
Fresh off the first big dramatic change of this new House order, it’s unclear what Hood will do. Last week, when a Mississippi Today reporter asked him a handful of questions about whether he’ll let the Senate bill come up for a vote in his House committee by deadline, he repeatedly answered: “We’re just going to continue to work it through the process.”
But if he’s thinking clearly about the process and whether to reach out and open the cracked window, he should consider a few things.
First, Gunn’s waning power will very soon fade into complete darkness. When the April 2 end to the 2023 legislative session arrives, it’s White’s gavel to lose. For what it’s worth, White told Mississippi Today he was “undecided” on whether to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage for new moms. That’s an obvious tell that he is at least open to considering the policy if not outright in support of it.
Second, the earliest Hood could face any political consequences for any decision is August of 2027. He is among the 40% of state lawmakers who has no single challenger in the 2023 election, meaning his reelection is guaranteed. And if he were to bravely buck Gunn’s wishes this week, it would be tough for any 2027 challenger to argue that it was the wrong thing to do, especially given the immense public popularity of the policy.
Lastly, it’s the right thing to do. And he doesn’t have to take it from this journalist. He can take it from the countless physicians, nurses, mothers, children and everyday Mississippians that have all but gotten down on their knees to beg. He can take it from 27-year-old Chelsea Brooks of Florence, 32-year-old Courtney Darby of Heidelberg, 30-year-old Kristen Elliott of Brandon, 31-year-old Laura McCardle of Copiah County, or 32-year-old Emma To of Madison County — real Mississippi mothers who have important postpartum stories to share.
What will they remember about Rep. Joey Hood years from now?