By STEVE WILSON
Sun Staff Writer
Mississippi state politics is now dominated by a bipolar, intraparty conflict pitting Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn that dates back years.
The enmity between the two Republican leaders dating back to their time as the leaders of their respective chambers in the Legislature has become the biggest story of the recently concluded legislative session. And it likely will be an issue when the Legislature returns to the capitol in January for next year’s session.
The first flare-up of this simmering conflict originated over who would get to allocate the $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March by Congress. Reeves said the new law gave him the power to dispense the funds. After he threatened to veto any bill that stripped him of that power, he reached a deal with legislative leaders in May that left most of the decision-making to the Legislature.
Rhetoric got heated between the two sides, with Gunn sending the governor a strongly-worded letter and Reeves accusing the Legislature of trying to settle old scores from when he was lieutenant governor.
Later in the COVID-19 elongated session, Reeves lined out two earmarks — $2 million for a now-closed hospital in Senatobia and $6 million for the MAGnet Community Health Disparity Program —in one of the appropriations bills with the CARES Act funds. This led to a lawsuit filed on August 5 by Gunn and Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, R-West, that will likely end up in the state Supreme Court, where three previous decisions have gone to lawmakers.
Reeves also vetoed most of the K-12 education appropriation bill because lawmakers eliminated $26 million for a program designed to give teachers in high-performing districts pay raises. The veto was later overridden by big majorities in the Legislature, but it turned into a victory for Reeves when lawmakers funded the pay raise program again.
House leaders and the governor also disagreed over who’d be in charge of overseeing projects that used Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act funds from oil and gas leases. This led to the Department of Marine Resources going without an appropriation for two months. Since the act was passed by Congress in 2006, the governor and the Department of Marine Resources vetted the projects, but now, the Legislature will have a say and the dispute will likely reappear next session.
Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann and the Senate, while joining Gunn and the House on the CARES Act initiative and the first veto override since 2002 with the education appropriation bill, have stayed out of the conflict between Gunn and Reeves. This could open a path for Hosemann to act as a peacemaker between the two.
This isn’t the first time that Gunn and Reeves have been at odds on policy.
In 2015, Reeves and Gunn each launched competing tax cut proposals with no chance of a compromise. Reeves wanted to cut a couple of the lowest brackets from the state’s income tax and phase out the corporate franchise tax. This tax was assessed at $2.50 per $1,000 of capital or property, whichever is greater and the Magnolia State was one of the few states with this regressive tax with no maximum limit.
Gunn countered with a proposal to phase out the state’s income tax over several years, which would’ve cut nearly $1.9 billion from the state’s general fund revenues.
Reeves’ less costly proposal (the franchise tax and income tax revenue at the time added up to about $382 million) won the day and was signed into law by then-Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016.
In 2018, taxes were again a point of disagreement between Gunn and Reeves, this time over infrastructure funding. Reeves said Gunn’s plan for a tax swap, which would’ve resulted in an income tax reduction coupled with an increase on gasoline and diesel fuels, would be dead on arrival in the Senate because he wouldn’t approve any bill with a gas tax increase. The Legislature later approved a plan that involved bond money, a tax on sports gambling and the creation of a lottery in the state.
With two of the state’s biggest political leaders constantly at odds, it’ll be interesting to see if they can find common ground on issues and move forward an agenda. There’s little doubt that barring a long-term peace between the two, the personality conflict between the two will color Mississippi state politics for the next three years at least.