In their final act of the 2023 session, in the wee hours of the morning April 1, Mississippi lawmakers passed a “Christmas tree” bill with $372 million in local pet projects.
It includes spending on parks, theaters, museums, city halls and courthouses, streets, volunteer fire stations, boat ramps and waterfront developments. From Adams County to Zama, nearly every hamlet — and every lawmaker — in Mississippi got a taste of the election-year spending.
Now the question is, will Gov. Tate Reeves veto some or all of the spending? He did last year, albeit selectively, nixing 10 projects worth about $27 million out of a similar $223 million local projects bill. This year’s bill even includes a re-try by lawmakers of some of the specific projects he vetoed last year.
But Reeves is up for reelection this year, facing Democratic challenger Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, whose knocks on Reeves include that he’s out-of-touch with rural and average Mississippians. Reeves may be reluctant to veto spending on projects with grassroots local support and anger lawmakers and their constituents during an election year.
Reeves called the projects he vetoed last year “wasteful” spending, but critics at the time noted that he approved most of the dozens of projects in the bill, including some that appeared very similar to the ones he vetoed.
For instance, he vetoed $500,000 last year for a green-space park around the federal courthouse in Greenville, but approved many other city beautification projects across the state.
Jackson bore the brunt of the governor’s 2022 vetoes, with four projects including upgrades to the capital city’s planetarium, a golf course and nature trail at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park. Reeves said the city had too many other problems, including crumbling infrastructure and crime, to be spending money on parks and a planetarium. But many other cities whose parks, museum and other projects he approved also have dire infrastructure and other major issues.
For this year, lawmakers re-upped $2 million in funding for Jackson’s planetarium in the projects bill. They also included in another bill money for LeFleur’s Bluff Park, although it is apparently not earmarked for golf course renovations.
Explaining his vetoes to reporters last year, Reeves said, “I vetoed some spending that is simply not state taxpayers’ responsibility.” He said this included city office upgrades. In this year’s bill, lawmakers funded numerous renovation projects for city and county government offices along with coliseums, amphitheaters, music halls and civic centers.
When asked for comment this week about his plans for the Christmas tree bill, Reeves’ spokesman Cory Custer said in a statement: “Mississippi Today is not a news organization, it is an unregistered Democrat PAC.”
Reeves has until April 22 to sign the bill into law or exercise his veto authority. The Mississippi Constitution gives governors the authority to issue partial or line-item vetoes of appropriations bills, though, there is debate about whether his vetoes last year were legal.
But since they never were challenged in court, the vetoes stood.
This year, if he vetoes any of the projects approved by legislators, there will be similar questions about whether the vetoes are legal.
In legislative parlance the bill containing most of the projects is not an appropriations bill. Another bill appropriates funds to the Department of Finance and Administration to fund the projects. But the projects themselves are in what is known as a general bill, which according to the constitution the governor must veto in whole or not at all.
House Speaker Philip Gunn said of last year’s vetoes, “… I am not aware of any provision under the law that allows the governor to veto partially a general bill. He has to veto all of it or none of it … That may be more than people want to understand but there are differences in the types of bills we have up here.”
And Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who successfully won a lawsuit against former Gov. Kirk Fordice for his partial vetoes in the 1990s, said of Reeves’ 2022 vetoes, “We’re just transferring money from one account to another, or from one purpose to another. That is not an appropriation. That is a transfer. I understand that to be what they are arguing and will not be subject to the line item.”
But in the end, no one challenged Reeves’ vetoes last year.
Each year the Legislature approves similar projects throughout the state, but the number approved during the 2023 session is historic. Legislators were able to expend such a large amount of funds on such projects because of unprecedented revenue growth in recent years.
Legislators have opted to spend those funds on such projects while not expanding Medicaid to ensure health care for primarily for the working poor and while not fully funding public education.
Also, for two years legislators have opted to leave a huge amount of revenue unspent.
Legislators submit their priority projects to the leadership early in the session. During the final days of the session, a small group of legislative leaders meet behind closed doors to determine how much money is available for projects and which projects will be funded.
Each year rank-and-file legislators learn late in the session whether their projects were funded. This year they learned soon after the clock rolled over to April Fool’s Day — April 1.
They will learn in the coming days whether their projects will survive Tate Reeves’ veto pen.