Last week’s legislative approval of at least $350 million for a green energy plant in north Mississippi was such an orchestrated affair that Gov. Tate Reeves had his celebratory press conference podium set up before the final legislative votes were cast.
Reeves, who runs the state’s economic development agency, walked into the Capitol last week and asked lawmakers to quickly write him a $350 million check to bring a green energy plant to north Mississippi. He told lawmakers that the plant, which would be built and operated by four unnamed companies, would employ 2,000 people by 2031.
Lawmakers engaged in virtually no debate about the merits of the project, asked few questions about the project’s details, were not given adequate time to read the 213-page bill, and still nearly unanimously voted to spend the money on the plant. One proposal to mandate that 70% of the plant’s jobs be given to Mississippians was quickly rejected by the House.
Reeves flexed his statutory special session power and forced lawmakers to consider his proposal, and in a few easy hours, he’d gotten exactly what he asked for. Effectively, the legislative branch tasked with appropriating and providing oversight of state funds merely rubber-stamped an expensive executive branch proposal with little deliberation.
That didn’t sit well with every lawmaker.
“If the governor can vet it and look at it, if the agency can vet it and look at it, it’s our responsibility to do the same,” House Minority Leader Robert Johnson III told Mississippi Today about the rushed nature of the session.
During the House committee meeting in which the package was introduced, Johnson, a Democrat from Natchez, asked Rep. Trey Lamar, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, if the House was required to pass the deal in a single day or if they could have more time to scrutinize it.
“I wouldn’t say it’s required, gentleman, but I do tell you and I think you know this, the plan is to pass this plan today,” Lamar responded.
Before the committee, including Johnson, unanimously voted to approve the 213-page bill, only two paper copies of the bill were made available for the 33-member committee to review. The digital version was only made available online roughly an hour earlier.
When the bills moved to the entire House chamber for consideration, House pages worked to distribute a printed summary of the legislation while members were debating the proposal. It did not appear possible for any member of the Legislature to have read the full 213-page bill before being asked to vote on it. Still, only two senators and one representative voted against the project.
The rushed proceedings marked a 180-degree turn from the initial vow House Speaker Jason White made on the first day of the 2024 session. That day, he promised to give House members more time to review spending bills before they’re required to cast an up-or-down vote.
White admitted in an interview with Mississippi Today that last week’s special session was quick, but he believed House members had sufficient time to review the specifics before casting a vote. He also said that he trusted the governor and Reeves’ agency leaders to vet the economic deal.
“Is it fair to say it’s fast and rushed? Yes, that is fair,” White told Mississippi Today. “I would just say that is the nature of special sessions and the way these deals are run because of the sensitivity surrounding the companies that are in play in this deal versus their competitors.”
In fairness to White, hurried special sessions over economic development are nothing new at the Capitol, but poring over the fine details could be a crucial counterweight to a governor who has pledged to push similar business deals through the Legislature.
The special session clearly illustrated the single-party GOP domination of state government. And it proved that the governor can now snap his fingers, say the words “economic development,” and expect legislative leaders to fall in line behind him.
Capitol leaders in the past have fiercely guarded their legislative powers and fought with governors in the public sphere and in the courts to protect their money-spending authority. Now, it appears the legislative branch is willing, at a bare minimum, to acquiesce its oversight authority during a special session.
“I worry that we’re setting a dangerous precedent,” Johnson said. “That’s what I worry about. The governor is in the executive branch, and we’re in the legislative branch. By doing it this way, while we’re in session, we’re essentially ceding our legislative authority to the governor.”
On Wednesday, Reeves announced he would call lawmakers into a Thursday special session for yet another economic development project. This time, he’s asking lawmakers for about $44 million in state funds, significant tax breaks, and a $215 million loan for two data collection centers in Madison County that he says will create a total of 1,000 jobs.
White, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and several key legislative leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Reeves at the governor’s office for the announcement.
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