Analysis: Lawsuits aim to show Barbour's limits

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and some Democratic legislators want to teach Gov. Haley Barbour a lesson about the extent of his gubernatorial authority.

That’s the reason two lawsuits challenging partial vetoes by the Republican governor are still pending, and if history is any indication, Barbour might lose these fights.

The most recent complaint deals with Barbour’s veto of state funding to cover overtime pay for Highway Patrol troopers.

Barbour issued his partial veto this July, saying the provisions within an appropriations bill restricted the management authority within the state Department of Public Safety. The governor said allocating the overtime funding, nearly $3 million, could force cuts in other critical agency areas.

As far as troopers are concerned, the issue was resolved recently when DPS Commissioner Steve Simpson said he would restructure the pay scale for the law officers to ensure they get their additional pay. Barbour said Simpson’s actions were acceptable.

The combative public relationship between Barbour and Hood was evident in the attorney general’s comments after Simpson announced the pay scale changes.

“It’s a shame it took a lawsuit to force the governor to do what was right,” Hood, a Democrat, said in an e-mail. “We will continue with our lawsuit because it will take the court to make the governor understand he does not rule the state single-handedly.”

Barbour’s response last week: “Having the Legislature attempt to micromanage the day-to-day operations of state agencies isn’t in anyone’s best interest, it’s not good policy, and that’s why I vetoed that part of the Senate Bill 2041.”

The complaint filed in Hinds County Chancery Court in early August by Hood, House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi and House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer of Montrose challenged the constitutionality of Barbour’s veto. The Democrats contended the governor’s action was “an unconstitutional and significant encroachment” on the authority of the legislative branch.

In court documents, Hood wrote there was more than 100 years of precedent interpreting a governor’s limited ability to overstep legislative authority to appropriate money by means of a partial veto.

A similar complaint against Barbour was filed in chancery court in 2007. That suit was brought by Hood, Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, and Rep. Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive.

The complaint asked the court to stop Barbour in his attempt with a partial veto to block $5.5 million in grant money allotted to Hood’s office for youth programs.

The case is still pending.

“I think there needs to be a statement of the law. We need to get a ruling so we won’t go through this again and again,” Tollison said last week.

Some observers might argue that Hood’s complaints against Barbour are an extension of partisan bickering or the byproduct of an atmosphere of political anticipation. Barbour is restricted by term limits from seeking another four years in office. There’s speculation that Hood — currently the only Democrat holding a statewide office — could seek the gubernatorial nomination for the 2011 election.

But the partial veto debate didn’t begin with Barbour. Two previous governors, Republican Kirk Fordice and Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, were unsuccessful in similar attempts to veto segments of legislation.

In 2002, a Coahoma County chancery judge ruled that Musgrove’s partial veto of $54.7 million budgeted for private prisons was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court made the same ruling in 1995 after Fordice vetoed selected projects from two bond bills in 1993.

McCoy shrugs off suggestions the trooper pay complaint has anything to do with political posturing.

“It’s really an important constitutional question to me,” McCoy said.

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press