COVID-19 May 2 Update

These are my comments from the press conference yesterday.

It is important that the people we represent understand why we are resuming the legislative session today.

Governor Reeves said that his goal was to get the Coronavirus Relief Funds to the people without delay and that he did not want a political battle. We agree and we have the same goals.

What we are doing is not about politics. It is about preserving the people’s voice in government. The framers of our constitution made sure the people, through their legislators, would have a voice in how taxpayer money is spent. They did not give us government by one man.

The people’s voice in government is sacred. It is not something to be lightly cast aside. We intend to preserve it. We reject the notion that government by the people cannot effectively deal with an emergency. And we reject any attempt to characterize our defense of government by the people as a mere “political battle” or a “power grab.”

The Governor has recognized that the power to spend taxpayer money belongs to the Legislature. But, he says the legislature delegated the power to spend federal emergency funds to the Governor. He compared this situation to a tornado or a hurricane. He says this is no different than Hurricane Katrina or the 2008 financial crisis. We disagree.

The facts are different.

A tornado or hurricane strikes a limited area then it is over. The impact and response may go on, but the storm itself is short-lived. The coronavirus is felt everywhere by everyone. It touches every aspect of life, from health to work to education. It affects the entire state. And the virus itself is with us for many weeks and months. As the Governor himself has stated many times, we are in uncharted territory. Emergency powers suited to dealing with localized, short-lived weather emergencies are not appropriate to deal with an ongoing, statewide pandemic crisis like coronavirus.

The laws in issue are different.

The federal law that dealt with Hurricane Katrina relief and the 2008 financial crisis stimulus bill explicitly stated that the “governors” of the several states would spend the funds. In contrast, the CARES Act provides the $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds to “the State” rather than to “the Governor.” Other provisions of the CARES Act, such as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, section 18002, explicitly state that “the Governor” decides how the funds are spent. Had Congress intended the Governor to have authority to spend the Coronavirus Relief Funds as he saw fit, the federal law would have said so. It did not.

The Mississippi statute the governor references, Miss. Code Section 33-15-27, states only that the governor, on behalf of the state, may “accept” and “receive” the funds. It does not say that the governor can decide how to spend the funds. That power remains with the legislature.

There has also been a claim that Miss. Code section 27-104-21 gives the governor power to spend federal funds without legislative appropriation. But, that statute says there can be no such expenditure except through a program that has already been authorized by an act of the Legislature, which would include an appropriation. In other words, it doesn’t give the governor authority to fund new relief programs. The CARES Act makes clear that Coronavirus Relief Fund monies can be only be spent for new relief programs that were not authorized in a prior appropriation. So, section 27 104-21 cannot be used to say that the Governor can spend this money.

Our courts have stated that the power to spend taxpayer money belongs to the legislature and that the legislature cannot delegate that power, even if it wanted to.

Governor Reeves, when he was State Treasurer, acknowledged that the legislature holds the power of the purse. At that time he was Chairman of the board of the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund (MHCTF). He argued that the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi could not spend a portion of the tobacco litigation settlement monies without legislative appropriation. Our Supreme Court agreed with Tate. It said, “… we note the obvious. The legislature holds the purse strings…the control of the purse strings of government is a legislative function; indeed, it is the supreme legislative prerogative, indispensable to the independence and integrity of the Legislature, and not to be surrendered or abridged, save by the Constitution itself, without disturbing the balance of the system and endangering the liberties of the people. The right of the legislature to control the public treasury, to determine the sources from which the public revenues shall be derived and the objects upon which they shall be expended, to dictate the time, the manner, and the means both of their collection and disbursement is firmly and inexpugnably established in our political system.” Colbert v. State, 86 Miss. 769, 39 So. 65, 66 (1905).

I want to highlight a few of those comments:

  1. we note the obvious, the legislature holds the purse strings
  2. it is the supreme legislative prerogative
  3. it cannot be surrendered
  4. it is firmly and inexpugnably established in our political system.

Regardless, any reading of these statutes that lets the governor spend money without legislative appropriation would be unconstitutional. Unconstitutional acts don’t become constitutional through repetition.

In 2006 Tate Reeves defended those liberties when he advocated that only the peoples’ legislative representatives can appropriate taxpayer money. He was right to defend those liberties in 2006. We intend to protect those liberties in 2020 and always.

The Governor says by letting him spend the money he can get it where it needs to go more quickly. That makes for a good sound bite, but what voice does the average citizen have in that decision making process? Who speaks for the citizen in that process? Where is the opportunity for the citizen to have any say in the ultimate decision? There is none.

Under our system of government there is only one place, one voice for the citizen in how THEIR tax dollars are spent. That is the legislature.

Throughout this pandemic, we have heard from Mississippians and agencies regarding their losses and needs. The actions we take today will ensure that ALL Mississippians – not just a select few – will have a voice in how these funds are spent.

We want to get the money out as quickly as possible, too. In moving toward that goal, we have:

  • already received from agencies how much this virus has cost them.
  • already received estimates from agencies how much they think it is going to cost them before by June 30
  • already received and continue to receive estimates from agencies how much they think it is going to cost them to Dec. 30
  • already had legal and LBO staff examine how this money can be spent
  • already begun to put together teams to formulate plans to:
    • help small businesses
    • help cities and towns
    • help counties
    • help restart our economy
    • address the distance learning problems that have been exposed through this crisis like lack of computers and internet service

The Governor has claimed that some emergency may arise where he needs money to act quickly to address a need. Some have claimed that the legislative process is too slow or cumbersome to respond quickly to the needs during an emergency. Well, even if that is true, it does not justify throwing the constitution in the trash can and ignoring the rights of the citizens to have a voice in their government. This is the type of mentality that says the government knows better than you what is good for you. But if it is true, I am willing to appropriate some of this money to the Governor’s office to use for that purpose. All he has to do is let us know what he needs to address such situations, and I am willing to work to give him the money he needs to do that, so that no need goes unmet. So this argument
or concern has no merit in this case.

We hold Governor Reeves in high personal regard. What we do today is not personal. We still pledge to work with the Governor to meet the needs of ALL Mississippians. We look forward to working with him to provide prompt relief to the people suffering from coronavirus in a way that preserves their voice in government. We can do both.

Representative government is not perfect. It is often messy. But it must not be abandoned, even – especially – in time of emergency. That is why we take the actions we take today.


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