Bobby Harrison

Bobby Harrison Mississippi Today

Imagine the surprise the security officer must have felt on July 2 when Speaker of the House Philip Gunn showed up at the gate of the Governor’s Mansion to deliver about 75 recently passed bills to Gov. Tate Reeves.

The episode, verified by multiple legislators and staff members, highlights the ongoing distrust, contention and one-upmanship between legislative leadership and the governor this session – the first of the four-year term.

Gunn’s special delivery occurred after legislators stayed in session late the prior night to conclude their work. Then Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, quickly completed the legislative process by signing the bills that had been passed during those past few days.

After that, as is custom, legislative staff called Reeves’ office and asked for someone to pick up the legislation so that the governor could begin the process of studying the bills to determine what he was going to sign into law and what he was going to veto. When the governor’s office refused to pick up the bills, legislative staff tried with no success to deliver them to the governor’s office in the Sillers Building.

So Gunn, the third-term House speaker, took it upon himself to deliver the bills to Reeves at his home in the Governor’s Mansion.

Gunn’s delivery started the clock, giving the governor five days – minus Sunday – to sign or veto the legislation or allow it to become law without his signature. Gunn’s primary intention likely was not to ensure Reeves and members of his staff had to endure a working July 4th weekend.

Instead, his purpose most likely was to begin the five-day process early enough to ensure that the Legislature could return to the Capitol on July 9 to deal with any potential veto . Under the complicated resolution passed earlier by the Legislature, members could reconvene the session through July 9 for any reason. But after July 9, the resolution allows the Legislature to resume the session only to deal with COVID-19 issues.

Gunn’s persistence was warranted. Reeves did veto or partially veto five of those bills, including about $2.2 billion in funding to local school districts. But as they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Both Gunn and Hosemann started developing coronavirus symptoms that July 4th weekend and both tested positive, as did multiple members of the Legislature, making it impractical for them to return on July 9 to deal with the vetoes.

As it currently stands, the local school districts and the Gulf Coast-based Department of Marine Resources, which legislators intended to fund when they returned on July 9, are receiving funds based on smoke and mirrors that might or might not stand up if challenged in court. After all, the Constitution, most agree, is clear that decisions of appropriating state funds rest with the Legislature, not the governor.

At some point the Legislature will reconvene either in a special session called by Reeves or in regular session under the guise of addressing COVID-19 issues. In that regular session, legislators could deal with at least the education veto and the Department of Marine Resources budget.

The issue of playing hot potato with bills is one of many rifts this year between the governor and legislative leaders. The most recent dustup was over the appointment of the members of the special commission established to recommend a new state flag design to replace the old banner that flew over the state for the last 126 years and displayed the Confederate battle emblem.

Reeves missed his legal deadline to make picks to the commission to join other members appointed by the speaker and lieutenant governor. Saying the commission faced a tight deadline to get a recommendation on the Nov. 3 election ballot, Hosemann and Gunn convened the first flag meeting without the Reeves appointees.

This action prompted the governor to lambaste the fact that a member of the legislative branch was convening an executive agency – the flag commission – and naming members to it.

Indeed, based on the separation of powers spelled out in the state Constitution, courts have ruled that legislators cannot serve on executive boards or appoint members of executive boards.

Perhaps Reeves was making good points. But whether the flag commission is an executive agency in the truest sense would be for the judiciary to decide should Reeves or someone else opt to challenge the issue in court.

But the fact remains: Reeves signed into law the bill creating the flag commission and the method of appointing its members. And it was in a batch of bills the governor received through the normal process – not via a special delivery from the speaker.

BOBBY HARRISON is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter and was a longtime Capitol reporter for the Daily Journal. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9931 or BHarrison@mississippitoday.org

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