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October 24, 2020

Mississippi budget disputes go to just one judge to decide

Mississippi Republican legislative leaders helped defeat a 2015 education initiative by arguing that if someone sued the state over school funding, one judge in Hinds County would make budget decisions for the whole state.

Now, some of those same leaders are asking one judge in Hinds County to side with them in a legal dispute over budgets.

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White are suing Gov. Tate Reeves, a fellow Republican, in Hinds County Chancery Court. They are challenging his partial vetoes of two bills to fund state government programs for the year that began July 1.

Many lawsuits dealing with state government are filed in Hinds County because it’s home to the capital city of Jackson.

The House leaders’ lawsuit points out that the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 1898, 1995 and 2004 that a governor cannot veto parts of budget bills that deal with the conditions, or purpose, for how money is spent.

The lawsuit asks a judge to uphold the previous Supreme Court rulings and declare that Reeves’s partial vetoes are invalid and the budget bills have become law.

Reeves became governor in January, after serving eight years as a lieutenant governor who exerted a large amount of control over the budget-writing process. He reacted angrily to the lawsuit.

During a news conference the day the lawsuit was filed, Reeves said he has handled unexpected issues during his first months as governor — the coronavirus pandemic, prison violence, the indictment of a former Department of Human Services director chosen by his predecessor and huge tornadoes that struck during the spring.

“We have dealt with just about everything you can imagine,” Reeves said. “So, dealing with yet another power grab by some members of the House is just not all that surprising to me, although I never would have guessed it a year or so ago.”

Reeves issued both of the partial vetoes July 8.

He struck multiple sections of House Bill 1700, the education budget bill, because it did not include nearly $25 million for a program that provides bonus pay for teachers in public schools that show significant improvement or that maintain high performance.

His other partial vetoes were in House Bill 1782, which allocated federal coronavirus relief money to various agencies. Reeves struck $2 million to North Oaks Regional Medical Center in Tate County. He said because North Oaks is closed, it has not provided care to COVID-19 patients. Reeves also struck $6 million to the MAGnet Community Health Disparity Program, writing that he was uncomfortable spending the money because he was unfamiliar with the program.

The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1995 agreed with a Hinds County chancery judge’s ruling in favor of legislators who sued Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice in 1993 after he vetoed parts of 27 budget bills and two bond bills.

The Supreme Court wrote in 1995: “The Governor is a check upon the spending power of the legislature within our established system of checks and balances. Therefore, the legislature may spend as it sees best just as the Governor may veto bills … as he sees best, but both must still operate within the constitutional parameters established by the drafters of our constitution.”

The 2004 ruling came down while Republican Haley Barbour was in his first year as governor, but the case originated with Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s 2002 partial veto of a budget bill for a privately run prison in the Delta.

Whatever the one judge in Hinds County decides in the lawsuit against Reeves, the ruling could be appealed to the state’s high court.

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994.

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