By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Seldom does a legislative session avoid pitfalls, detours and hard feelings, but the 2014 legislative session, especially the final days, was more chaotic than most, and the chaos lasted until the very end.
“It wasn’t always pretty, but the legislative process is not always pretty,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who drew the bipartisan ire of House members on a number of fronts, including insisting that certain projects be included in the Transportation budget, such as $10 million for work on busy Lakeland Drive in the Jackson area.
Despite the aesthetics of the session, “significant … conservative measures were passed to make Mississippi a better place,” Reeve said moments after adjourning the 2014 session Wednesday night.
Reeves and other conservatives point to a budget with a rainy day fund filled to the legal limits, a 20-week abortion ban and legislation that conservatives say will protect religious liberties.
Many Democrats expressed disappointment with the level of funding for education, the lack of across-the-board pay raises for state employees and the fact that the state again is not expanding Medicaid to cover the working poor as is allowed by federal law.
Both sides are happy with some items – such as changes to the criminal justice system designed to curb growth in the state’s prison budget and a $2,500 pay raise over a two-year period for teachers.
“Hopefully, it will attract the best and brightest to go into education,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who was the first politician in a leadership position to advocate for a teacher pay raise.
What most could agree on, despite political persuasion, is that the final days were difficult, filled with long nights, numerous starts and restarts and mixed signals. Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, the House minority leader, described the final days as “grueling and grinding.”
When Wednesday began there was little belief that it could be the final day of the 2014 session. After all, key issues remained – mainly funding the Department of Transportation so that construction and maintenance work could continue for the next fiscal year on the state’s roads.
The realization that Wednesday could be the final day of not only the 2014 session, but also the special session the governor called that afternoon, did not come into focus until late Wednesday afternoon.
But it was in special session, where House and Senate members came to agreement on the last remaining items, adding 16 assistant district attorneys across the state and budgets for the Department of Transportation and for State Aid Roads, which is the program that helps local governments with road and bridge repairs.
The special session within the regular session allowed the Legislature to reach agreement on those issues without having to worry about the burdensome process of garnering a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules and extend the session. An extension of the session would have been required to consider those issues in regular session because they were not passed by constitutionally mandated deadlines.
A glimpse of the portending chaos of the final days should have been revealed when House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, announced via Twitter that House and Senate leaders had reached a budget agreement late Friday night. Yet on Saturday, and to a certain extent on Sunday, negotiations continued and there were longer-than-usual delays in putting those agreements in bill form to be voted on by the full membership, resulting in budget bills being passed late Monday night.
Then, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Legislature tackled many of the key and sometimes most controversial issues of the session, such as the religious freedom bill and a proposal to give $6,000 to some parents of special-needs children to pursue private education options.
That legislation, which was described as a voucher bill by opponents, was killed on a close vote in the House even after Gunn made what some saw as a controversial ruling saying the bill required only a majority vote to pass. Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and others said the bill should require a two-thirds vote because of a constitutional provision that says the super majority vote is required for the Legislature to provide a gift to a person or non-governmental entity.
Gunn said he knew the vote was going to be close, but was surprised by its defeat. When asked if he thought the bill would come up again during the 2015 session, he said, “No, I do not.”
To cap off a 2014 session that had final days filled with special sessions, endless recesses as the leadership haggled over various issues and controversial rulings, the House reversed course and killed legislation banning texting while driving a day after it had passed 104-16.
A motion to reconsider was entered by Rep. Bill Denny, R-jackson, just before the session was going to be adjourned. Efforts to table the motion by a majority vote and send the texting ban bill to the governor were defeated.
Soon after, the chaos of the 2014 regular and special sessions came to an abrupt halt.
Despite everything, the Legislature finished its work in 86 days instead of the 90 specified in the state Constitution.