Concentrated power in the Legislature waxes and wanes with the attitudes of rank-and-file members.
At times, speakers of the House and lieutenant governors have wielded dictator-like power. At other times, members have risen up and made the bodies operate more democratically.
Concentrated power is waxing once again as rank-and-file legislators cede power to their leaders.
The Mississippi Constitution intends for the House and Senate to be deliberative bodies wherein the elected members discuss and debate the diverse views of their constituents as they formulate policy and law, not fiefdoms ruled by powerful lieutenant governors and speakers.
Indeed, the Constitution awards no strong powers to either office except that the lieutenant governor shall be the convening “president of the Senate.” The vast power amassed in these offices is yielded by rank and file members through their rules and through tradition.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves displayed his dictator-like power last week when he announced senators would not be allowed to consider House Bill 480. This is the bill to tax online sales. It was passed by the House and touted by Speaker Philip Gunn as a way to fund road and bridge improvements.
In his statement announcing the Senate “will not consider a proposal to tax internet sales,” Reeves argued the bill may contravene a Supreme Court ruling. That point was argued in the House (and in Alabama where the law is working) but members, given the chance to decide for themselves, passed the bill. Using his power to enforce his personal position, Reeves denied senators the same opportunity.
Earlier in the session, Gunn played the same power game with regard to state lottery bills. As The Clarion-Ledger’s Geoff Pender reported, “He’s against it, and he doesn’t even want the House to vote on it.”
When Judiciary A Chairman Mark Baker had the audacity to ignore Gunn’s feelings and pass out a lottery bill, Gunn “barged into the committee meeting and had a private meeting with Baker,” Pender reported, adding it was not a cordial meeting.
The premature deaths of these revenue enhancing bills come as the deterioration of state finances has reached an ominous stage.
“The state’s economist and treasurer’s office last week gave lawmakers a dour report on the state’s economy,” reported The Clarion-Ledger on Feb. 21, “saying the state’s growth and other economic indicators are lagging behind the nation, it has lost population and state sales tax collections — its largest source of income — was at (minus) -0.5% for fiscal 2017 through January.
That was the same day Gov. Phil Bryant announced his fifth “emergency mid-year cut” and again dipped into the state’s rainy day fund.
A week earlier, state Treasurer Lynn Fitch revealed Mississippi’s bond debt jumped $1.3 billion to a total of $4.3 billion over 10 years, a 43 percent increase (not including the state guaranteed multibillion-dollar PERS shortfall).
Outsiders looking at Mississippi and seeing revenue shortfalls, burgeoning debt, deteriorating roads and power plays that abort possible solutions are unlikely to be attracted to our fair state.
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.