Minutes before the 2019 legislative session recently ended, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, went to the presiding officer’s podium in the Senate chamber to whisper to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves that he wanted to take a point of personal privilege.
Speaking to the full chamber, Reeves told Bryan he was going to recognize him but warned that the reason for taking a point of personal privilege is narrowly defined in the Senate rules. It essentially is reserved for members who believe they had been personally attacked in their official capacity or the rights, integrity or dignity of the chamber had been brought into question.
The implication was clear that Reeves would cut him off if he veered from that narrow focus.
Bryan used the point of personal privilege to urge his fellow senators, both Democrats and Republicans, to regain control of the Senate chamber. He said the 52 senators had essentially ceded all of their authority to the presiding officer – the lieutenant governor.
He made it clear he did not blame the current lieutenant governor and that it did not begin with Reeves. He said ceding that power has been a gradual process that has grown progressively more obvious.
It is no secret in the halls of the Capitol that Reeves controls the Senate’s processes and policy direction. Some might argue that is good. Others might disagree.
But the fact is that the power that Reeves or any lieutenant governor has is derived from those 52 senators.
The Mississippi Constitution essentially gives the lieutenant governor two powers – to preside over the Senate and to serve in the absence of the governor. Plus, of course, he can vote in the case of a tie.
The powers to appoint committee chairs, who are beholden to the lieutenant governor, and to assign other committee members and to assign or not assign bills to committee are granted to the lieutenant governor by the Senate.
In the early 1990s there was a lawsuit by members of the Senate, including former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, arguing that for the lieutenant governor, a member of the executive branch, to have so much authority in the legislative branch violated the separation of powers clause in the Mississippi Constitution.
The state Supreme Court ruled that the lieutenant governor could serve as a type of “super legislator” if the members of the Senate chose to make him one.
Bryan was among a group of senators arguing for the lieutenant governor, a statewide elected official, to have such powers.
And Bryan stressed he was not arguing now in his point of personal privilege that those powers should be stripped from the lieutenant governor, but perhaps contained.
“I am suggesting to the body that we could this summer meet with the candidates for lieutenant governor and let them know we would like to reverse a trend,” Bryan said.
The two primary candidates vying to replace Reeves, who is running for governor, are Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is considered the favorite, and Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes. There is not much of a likelihood that the Democrats can garner control of the Senate in this election cycle. To capture the majority they would almost have to win every race where they fielded a Senate candidate.
Hughes might be saying to himself that Bryan should keep quiet. If Hughes wins, it is likely that at least some members of the expected Republican majority would try to strip his powers.
Bryan said that is not his intent. But Bryan said he does believe there could be more of a collaborative partnership between the senators and the lieutenant governor.
When Republican Phil Bryant was elected lieutenant governor in 2007, Democrats still held a majority in the Senate. There was some talk that year of Democrats trying to change the rules to take some power from Bryant. That effort, though, never garnered much support.
Whether it would have been successful is not clear.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.