/Coronavirus in Mississippi Legislature to suspend session, works to ensure protections for local government workers

Coronavirus in Mississippi Legislature to suspend session, works to ensure protections for local government workers

Editor’s Note: The Legislature adjourned on March 18 and was reopened April 1. At their discretion, the speaker and lieutenant governor of the House could delay the return to Capitol. Minutes after House Speaker Philip Gunn walked to the speaker’s water fountain on Monday afternoon, he informed his colleagues that the legislative session would continue as normal despite fears of coronavirus. Gunn’s Chief Of Staff Trey Dellinger approached Gunn’s water well and whispered in his ear. Dellinger received a call from Thomas Dobbs the state health officer, suggesting that the session be suspended despite previous suggestions that it could continue. This was a message Gunn took as members from both chambers pressed him to delay. Gunn, R.-Clinton did not notify members about the changes in advice from Thomas Dobbs, but requested a recess. He then went immediately to the office Lt. Governor. Delbert Hosemann, the Senate’s President, initiated talks to suspend the session as soon possible. The talks commenced hours of discussion between the leaders and their teams about how the Legislature would delay their time in Jackson. These talks produced some of most confusing parliamentary maneuvering in recent history of the Legislature. The 122 House members were finished with their legislative work on Tuesday. However, 52 senators will need to meet Wednesday morning in order to complete the postponement. On Tuesday morning, legislative leaders informed their members that they had developed a plan for suspending the session and allowing the Legislature to resume once Gunn and Hosemann have deemed it safe and appropriate to return to the state Capitol. The Capitol has been closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders wanted to address one issue before adjourning the session: give local governments the authority for continuing to pay workers who may be on administrative leave due to the virus outbreak. Both the House of Representatives and Senate introduced bills to allow paid leave to be offered by school districts and city and county governments. The governor of Texas, Tate Reeves, had signed an executive order that allowed paid leave to be offered the day before. Tate Reeves signed an Executive Order that allows state agencies, board, commissions, and other state entities, to offer administrative leave with paid pay. On Tuesday, Democrats in the House pushed for additional protections for private workers. Robert Johnson (D-Natchez) filed an amendment to a House Resolution that would have required Mississippi Department of Employment Security, to provide paid leave for “any persons” affected by a loss of employment because of coronavirus. This could include employees of private companies. The House was urged to approve it by him and Bryant Clark (D-Ebenezer), along with other Democrats. Clark stated, “I don’t believe it’s right that we return home and hunker down while we have thousands across this state who will be left without any resources to weather this storm.” “I can’t go home in faith knowing that we’re leaving thousands upon thousands of Mississippians without a lifejacket.” White, House Pro Tem, responded by arguing there were too many unknowns for Johnson’s proposal to be considered. White stated that “we don’t know how it would look for our state to pay the number of claims that this gentleman envisions.” Johnson’s amendment wouldn’t force payments but would have made sure a bill was in place when lawmakers returned to make sure members could at least consider offering unemployment benefits to the workers. The amendment was ultimately defeated primarily on party lines. The Johnson amendment was not passed. It will require a two-thirds vote in order to pass such a bill when the session resumes. Hosemann stated that federal legislation was being passed to most likely help workers affected by the coronavirus. Johnson is concerned that low-wage employees will not be able to access federal funds unless the state laws are changed. Johnson claimed that they need the change because they aren’t technically unemployed and therefore cannot receive unemployment benefits. Johnson and other House Democrats refused immediately to release the bill providing protection for government workers and the resolution suspending the session. This is why the Senate must return to the Senate on Wednesday morning to consider the legislation. Johnson’s amendments and any other changes to the Senate measure cannot be made on Wednesday without the House returning to town to approve them. The state is trying to manage and anticipate the effects of the coronavirus fallout, so if the Legislature doesn’t return in June to pass a budget before the new fiscal years begins on July 1, it may have additional problems. Hosemann stated at Tuesday’s press conference that “this pandemic is most uncommon to all of us.” Our lives will return to normal. This will be a success. Support our work by making a regular donation to support this Spring Member Drive. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of all Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think.