/There’s a stranger sleeping in my bed’ Legislative Democrats have rare bargaining power in CARES Act spending battle

There’s a stranger sleeping in my bed’ Legislative Democrats have rare bargaining power in CARES Act spending battle

Democrats have been reduced to virtually no political power at the Capitol for many years. However, Republicans won statewide elections last spring and secured a three-fifths supermajority both in the House and Senate. As Republican Lt. Governor. Delbert Hosemann, Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn attempt to get the sole spending authority for $1.2 billion in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds from Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and Democrats will decide whether the legislative leaders keep that authority or the governor. Rep. John Hines (D-Greenville) said, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” “This is one of those situations when a stranger sleeps in my bed. (Republicans will need allies) The GOP power struggle revolves around whether the governor or legislature should have spending authority over $1.25 billion in coronavirus stimulant funds that Mississippi received. Reeves maintained for weeks that he holds the sole authority, but that he would consult the Legislature about how the money is spent. This week, however, legislative leaders decided to take matters into their own hands and plan to return to Capitol early to pass legislation that would give them the spending power and remove the governor from it. Hosemann and Gunn wrote Wednesday to the state’s treasurer and fiscal officer asking them to stop spending the funds until they meet and decide how to proceed. Since mid-March, the Legislature has been on a coronavirus-related hiatus. It was originally scheduled to return May 18. The Legislature will meet again Friday at 1 p.m. to discuss the matter, more than two weeks ahead of schedule. On Thursday, leaders are discussing behind closed doors what the legislation will look and how they will proceed. Sources close to negotiations say that there is a possibility that both the House and Senate will need to vote to suspend any rules in order to discuss any new legislation. To suspend legislative rules, a vote must be approved by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House. The Republicans have a three-fifths supermajority of both chambers. However, Democrats do not have a two thirds supermajority. A two-thirds vote is required to override any governor veto if the leaders find a legislative way to suspend the rules for introducing a bill. The two-thirds vote scenarios allow Democrats to have a seat at the table when deciding how federal stimulus money should go. Mississippi Today interviewed members of both the Democratic Caucus as well as the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus in order to find out if they think the Legislature should be able to spend the stimulus money. Reeves and top legislative Democrats have been having talks with each other in the last hour as votes are being whipped, and battle lines are being drawn. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic Leader, said he supports Gunn and Hosemann’s efforts to ensure that the Legislature has the spending authority for at least $1.25 Billion in federal funds. Johnson stated that he believes that the Republican legislative leadership needs to work with minority Democratic members in order to get their input on spending the funds. On Thursday, most Democrats spoke to Mississippi Today and stated that they believe the Legislature should be able to spend the funds. Rep. Chris Bell (D-Jackson) stated that there has been a history where the governor spent money in places that didn’t impact the African American community. “With the COVID-19 100 percent crisis affecting us, it’s an easy decision to spend that money in our communities…on clinical and nutritional research, opportunities for us to improve our diets, and other things that are related to this issue, as well as funding historically black colleges and universities to create ventilators. Bell stated that “Reeves believed he had the authority and then he said he was going to hire someone to spend the money.” “That’s why we’re here.” Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson. Blount stated that he doesn’t have preconceived ideas about where the money should go, but that it should be done in a transparent and open legislative process. Not by one person. Blount stated that it is the constitutional obligation of the legislative branch to appropriate money. Senator Angela Turner Ford (D-West Point), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, a group of exclusively Democratic senators, stated that the money should go to victims of the coronavirus. She did not say that the Legislature should appropriate the funds. Turner-Ford stated, “I don’t want to declare a position right away.” “I would love to know what authority the governor claims he has. “I personally would like more information.” Leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus as well as the Democratic Caucus are trying to achieve unanimity among their members. Sources in both caucuses indicated that they lean toward supporting legislative leadership and hope for meaningful dialogue with Hosemann or Gunn about how to spend the money. Sonya Williams-Barnes (D-Gulfport) stated that the Legislature has the power to appropriate funds for the state. The CARES Act monies should be treated the same way. “We are responsible to the welfare of the citizens in Mississippi, therefore we should be able appropriate funds for their benefit,” said Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport.