The moment in legislative time when rank-and-file Mississippi lawmakers might have the most impact is during the opening weeks of a new four-year term when they adopt the rules that govern the House and Senate.
Granted, once the rules are adopted, they can be amended. But changing the rules after they are adopted is a burdensome process and not often undertaken. The time to have an impact is when the rules are first being voted on by the members.
Legislators will have an opportunity to have such an impact in the coming days when the rules are adopted by the full House and Senate for the new four-year term. But members almost assuredly will not take advantage of that opportunity and instead meekly approve the rules spoon fed to them by leaders.
Sure, discussions of the legislative rules fall into the category of being nerdish or an inside baseball type endeavor, but the joint rules can make a difference — a difference, for example, in how much money is appropriated to educate Mississippi’s children or to provide public health services.
In 2012, the Mississippi Legislature approved at the behest of the two new presiding officers, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a rule that prevented the rank-and-file legislator from having impact on their most important duty: funding state government.
The joint rule first adopted in 2012 prohibits a member from adding money in one area, such as for health care, without specifying another agency or program from which the money would be taken. Legislators say the rule is designed to prevent fiscal irresponsibility. They argue it prevents lawmakers from just offering a popular proposal to provide a teacher pay raise, for example, without specifying how to fund the pay raise.
On the surface that sounds good. But importantly, the rule specifies that the money must be taken from a budget that is still before the chamber where the proposal is offered to increase funding for a specific agency. And that is a big deal considering that no more than half of the state’s budget bills are before a chamber at any particular time.
Even more restrictive is the fact that lawmakers also cannot access state surplus funds to propose adding extra money to an agency or a program. So, in other words, a legislator looking to offer an amendment to the full chamber to increase the money going to a program does not have all state revenue available in making the proposal.
And remember, in recent years, thanks to the national economic conditions and the billions of dollars in federal COVID-relief funds, the state has had an unprecedented surplus. Going into the 2024 legislative session, the state will have at least $2 billion in surplus funds — most likely a lot more, but the rank-and-file legislator has virtually no say in how those funds are spent.
Perhaps it is a bad idea to tap into the surplus funds, but it is reasonable to assume legislators elected by the people to fund state government should be able to vote on whether to spend some of those funds.
But under the 2012 rule, members cannot, for instance, offer an amendment to spend some of those surplus funds to fund a program to deal with the nation’s worst infant mortality rate or to deal with the nation’s highest diabetes rates or worst heart disease rate or to address any of the litany of other areas where an argument could be made that an extra financial effort is needed to improve the state’s standing.
The rule requires a legislator to specify that the money would come from education, for example, to provide additional funds to combat infant mortality. A legislator cannot offer an amendment to use a small portion of the state surplus funds for such an amendment.
The result of the rule is that the budget is prepared by a handful of appropriators under the leadership of the presiding officers, and the rank-and-file members simply rubber stamp those budget bills when they reach the floor.
Perhaps one of the great mysteries of the Mississippi Legislature is why members so willingly relinquish their most important duty. Maybe it is just because they do not want to have the responsibility of making tough decisions.
Or perhaps rank-and-file members are reluctant to oppose the leadership by trying to change such restrictive rules. They would rather vote with the leadership, and then tell their constituents they are part of the leadership making those pivotal decisions, when in reality they have little real impact on perhaps the most important function of the Mississippi Legislature: funding state government.
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