The 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature will begin on Tuesday, but lawmakers should postpone most of their work for a few months. That’s the proposal of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, and we support it.
Mississippi continues to see an alarming rate of new COVID-19 infections, with the state repeatedly setting new records in the number of new pandemic-related illnesses and deaths reported in a single day. Those records will likely be broken again in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, vaccination efforts continue in the state, which is welcome, but broader vaccine access remains some weeks or even months off.
Against that backdrop, we can only conclude that the upcoming session presents a safety risk not only to lawmakers, but to the staff that make their work possible and to the wider state. Legislative deliberation will routinely bring 122 representatives and 52 senators together in close spaces, and then they go back out again to every corner of the state. One initial infection could quickly spread to a dozen people through a single committee hearing and then from there to many communities in the state, from our Northeast Mississippi hills to the Gulf Coast.
Rigorous social distancing within the capitol and back home might be able to reduce some risk, but at the cost of reducing the access of the general public to their elected representatives. We elect our legislators to act on our behalf, but ongoing interaction between lawmakers and their constituents on the issues of the day remains a vital component of democratic process.
With this in mind, we emphasize that since the session can be delayed without any significant harms, it should be. We hope the House of Representatives will give serious consideration to the lieutenant governor’s proposal.
Several points need to be made clear. First, delaying legislative work won’t cost more money. Beyond their base pay, legislators only receive a supplemental daily payment for days a session is actually doing business. An adjournment from January to March won’t boost any lawmaker’s pay.
Second, delaying the session until March to June won’t delay teacher pay raises, which we certainly hope will be approved. The state’s new fiscal year does not begin until July 1. As long as a delayed session wraps by June, there should be no issues. There is also no constitutional authority to hold a virtual session, so moving the legislative process onto Zoom or some such platform is not possible.
We also want to express some concern about reporting by the Daily Journal’s Caleb Bedillion that at least some House members are interested in an expedited session rather than a delayed session. There is no discernible benefit here related to the mitigation of pandemic risk. Further, we do not believe that quickly rushing through legislation is of public benefit. The crafting of careful legislation requires time to deliberate, review and debate. Haste hampers oversight.