House seeks to end self-destruct switch

djournal-state-news-mississippiBy Jeff Amy

Associated Press

JACKSON – A figurative self-destruct switch is turned on at many state agencies in Mississippi.

No time bombs are ticking in the office buildings that overlook the Capitol. But laws that authorize many agencies specify a date the law will be repealed and the agency will cease to exist.

Those repealers are traditionally one of the ways that the state’s powerful Legislature has kept departments and commissions on a short leash. Because agencies must return every few years to have their operating authority renewed by the Legislature, lawmakers get a guaranteed chance to make changes in an agency’s mission or pressure agency heads to operate differently.

The power of the repealer was illustrated in 2013 when Democratic lawmakers used an effort to renew the state Medicaid agency to push Republicans to expand the Medicaid program and add another 300,000 low-income people to its rolls. The additional coverage is an option under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed in 2010.

Unable to get the votes in the House to renew Medicaid during the regular session, Gov. Phil Bryant was forced to call a special session to renew Medicaid authorization. Lawmakers voted to renew the program only in June, two days before the program would have run out.

During the special session, House Republican leaders tried to remove the repealer from Medicaid, but Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Senate put it back in. They’ll be debating Medicaid again this year, because the agency is supposed to dissolve on July 1. Precedent suggests a court could keep the agency alive, at least for a short time, if necessary.

But, burned by the Medicaid experience, House Republican leaders have decided to turn off the self-destruct sequence at some agencies. They’ve proposed removing repealers on various agencies and laws, as well as some reverters – measures that take away authority to spend or borrow money.

“It was a policy decision on the agencies that were going to be here,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, explaining that House Republican leaders no longer see the need for routine repealers on parts of state government that have existed forever.

“This is very innocuous,” Smith argued.

But if the overall effort is successful, such a move would be a significant – and voluntary – surrender of power from Mississippi’s traditionally strong Legislature to its traditionally weak executive branch.

House Democrats see it as another effort to run over the minority. With repealers, any member gets a chance to offer an amendment on the floor to alter an agency or add a new responsibility. But without the repealer, they would have to rely on the goodwill of a committee chairman to bring forward a bill to do what the member wants.

“The only reason we get to address the needs in other areas is because there was a reverter or there was a repealer,” Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, argued last Wednesday before the House. “These repealers are for you, so you can address issues that affect your people.”

Arguments by Eaton and other Democrats successfully defeated an effort to remove the reverter from the Emerging Crops Fund, which makes low-interest loans to farmers to build chicken houses. House Bill 381, which contained the language, was held for further action by the House.

Some other bills removing repealers have passed the House, though. They likely face a hard road in the Senate, where Reeves likes to keep a close eye on state agencies. Until he changes his mind, lawmakers will leave the self-destruct switches on.