The conference, the strange period of the legislative session, has begun – a period when rank and file members are unlikely to influence the process and especially the budget process.
As the budget conference process begins, lawmakers are sitting on an unprecedented revenue surplus of more than $2 billion, but most MPs will have little say in how those funds are spent.
The conference takes place when three members of each chamber — House members appointed by Speaker Philip Gunn and Senate members appointed by Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann — meet to settle differences in legislation. Meetings normally take place behind closed doors.
When an agreement is reached, the basic members of each chamber have the choice between:
- Approve this compromise and send it to Governor Tate Reeves for his signature.
- Send it back for further negotiations.
- Kill the proposal.
During the conference, rank and file members cannot propose amendments to proposals as they can earlier in the session.
In addition, lawmakers are under enormous pressure to approve the compromise in order to keep the legislative train on track. After all, the session is due to end on April 3, and returning a bill for further negotiations risks delaying the end of the session.
Grassroots legislators, at least, have the opportunity earlier in the process to influence most general proposals, as they can propose amendments to bills both in committee and on the floors of the House. and the Senate.
These rank-and-file lawmakers, however, do not have free options for proposing amendments to budget bills — bills that fund state agencies and services. In reality, they have virtually no ability to influence the budget process. Members gave up that right in 2012 when Republicans took over both houses of the Legislative Assembly for the first time since the 1800s.
At this time, the legislative leaders, – President Gunn and then Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who chaired the Senate and is now governor, pushed through rule changes that essentially thwarted any rank and file influence on budgeting, perhaps the most important duty of lawmakers.
The rule change approved by lawmakers in 2012 gave the two presidents more power — at least over the budget process — than perhaps any president in the state’s history.
The change prohibits members from proposing amendments to appropriation bills unless they cite which agency they are taking the money from. If a member wishes to provide additional funds to the Department of Public Safety, for example, to deal with the years-long backlog in performing autopsies, they should indicate from which agency these additional funds are being drawn.
And to make the process more complicated, the money must come from a budget bill that is before the chamber at the time.
It’s important to understand that each chamber takes and passes half of the more than 100 bills funding state agencies and commissions, and then exchanges bills with the other chamber. The House will send its supply bills to the Senate and vice versa.
If a House member wishes to increase funding for Mississippi’s Adequate Education Program, for example, to provide additional funds to local school districts and wishes to obtain funding from the Department of Transportation to do so, the member cannot if the transportation bill is in the Senate at the time instead of the House.
The added folly of the rule change is particularly evident this year, when the state has an unprecedented revenue surplus totaling about a third of the state’s entire support budget of about $6 billion. The rules dictating the options rank and file members have to influence the budget process do not allow them to move an amendment to take one of the historically high amounts of surplus funds to add money to education, health care health care, law enforcement or any other budget.
Essentially, only the leaders — the chairs and chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees — have the authority to use these excess funds.
Of course, rank-and-file members could show collective strength and send the appropriation bills back to the conference for further negotiation and send a message that they want more excess funds to go to education or another agency. But given the short time between when members vote on these compromise proposals and the scheduled end of the session, members have generally been reluctant to take such bold steps.
The end result is that the session has entered a period where most rank-and-file members are simply sitting around waiting to rubber-stamp what management is offering them. In 2012, members gave management that power by voting to change restrictive rules.
And they haven’t attempted to change the rule in recent years to regain the power they once had.
This analysis was carried out by mississippi today a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics, and culture. Bobby Harrison is the senior reporter for Mississippi Today’s Capitol.