There’s an old saying around the Mississippi Capitol: When the state has no money, lawmakers fuss and fight. When the state has lots of extra money, lawmakers really fuss and fight.
If that holds true, the 2022 legislative session that starts Tuesday should be a donnybrook. The state has an extra $4.2 billion to spend, between federal largesse from COVID-19 stimulus and increased state tax revenue — largely also a result of previous federal stimulus spending over the last two years. For perspective, the state general budget is usually around $6 billion a year.
Reaching agreement on the extra spending would be a heavy lift for the 174-member, part-time citizen Legislature. But it also faces another half-dozen or so major issues or chores — redistricting, income tax cuts or elimination, medical marijuana, reinstating the citizen ballot initiative, teacher pay, banning some things about race that are not being taught in Mississippi schools — any one of which could create epic political wrangling.
And the current legislative leadership that took office in 2020, despite being all Republican, has had trouble agreeing on major issues. Gov. Tate Reeves has often been at odds with the legislative leadership even when those leaders have reached agreements. They’ve even squared off in court.
Reeves has already floated a veto threat for an issue where lawmakers appeared to reach agreement after working on it all summer — medical marijuana. Despite promising for months he would call lawmakers into special session last year if they reached an agreement on a program, Reeves reneged, saying the program was too liberal with the amount of marijuana it would provide patients, and was a beachhead for recreational use.
The legislative session is set to last about three months. It’s not unrealistic to think lawmakers might have to go into extra innings — either extending the regular session or coming back into special session(s) given the workload before them.
Some political leaders have questioned why the governor — who holds sole authority to do so — didn’t call the Legislature into special session in 2021 to get an early start on some work, particularly on medical marijuana and on spending the $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act stimulus money lawmakers will direct. Mississippi appears to be behind most other states in planning for or spending ARPA money.
“What are we waiting on?” House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, said last fall. “… This will take time to do it right. We at least need a special session for planning … I thought one of the advantages of having this unilateral leadership, one party controlling both houses and the executive branch, was that they’d all be on the same page and they’d all be talking. They don’t talk.”
Of the state’s leadership, only Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has expressed urgency on the federal spending. He has urged that the spending be carefully planned and administered, to ensure it provides lasting, generational improvements in the poorest state in the union. Hosemann created a special subcommittee that held multiple hearings on the funding in the off season. Neither the House nor the governor’s office participated in the hearings or have held similar public planning sessions.
“We have to get this right,” Hosemann has repeatedly said, and called it a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
The state income tax promises to be another source of debate for lawmakers this year. House Speaker Philip Gunn wants to phase out the state income tax, and replace it with increases in sales and other use taxes. Reeves wants to eliminate the income tax, but by betting on the come, without any commensurate increases in taxes elsewhere. Each has criticized the others’ proposal.
Hosemann has taken a more studied, reserved approach, and Senate leaders have urged caution in making such a sea change in the state budget during uncertain economic times.
For the 2022 session, a far more likely outcome is a substantial income tax cut, not elimination.
For other issues, such as a teacher pay raise, there appears to be general agreement, but the devil — and debate — may lie in the details and amounts.
Observers of sessions past have decried a “do-nothing Legislature” when the body failed to tackle major issues. That won’t likely be said of the 2022 Mississippi legislative session.