Rule change could crimp lawmakers' spending power

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Some Democrats are warning that a proposal to change the Mississippi Legislature’s rules could handcuff their ability to seek more money for education.

The proposal, written by House Rules Chairman Mark Formby, R-Picayune, would require that any time lawmakers want to increase spending on an item, they would have to cut spending elsewhere by an equal amount.

The rule will help keep the budget balanced and prevent lawmakers from spending too much, Formby said Friday.

“This just prevents any member from arbitrarily getting an amendment passed that would unbalance the budget,” he said.

Opponents, though, said that it would make it even harder for a majority of House or Senate members to go against the wishes of a chamber’s leadership. They said it will make it impossible to dip into reserves to spend more, and said it will be equally difficult to wrest money away from other agencies.

“It will prevent any single member of the House or the Senate from being able to impact the appropriations process,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

At the beginning of each four-year term, both houses adopt rules that cover things like deadlines for acting on bills and how legislative differences between the chambers are to be resolved. The current Legislature has yet to adopt such rules, but House leaders expect to take them up next week, including the change.

Republicans took control of the House this year for the first time since Reconstruction.

Brown said the change will make the already-difficult amendment process nearly impossible, because defenders of other agencies will fight. “It pits agency against agency,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the proposal is a joint effort between House and Senate leaders. Laura Hipp, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said Reeves wouldn’t comment until whatever the House approves reaches the Senate.

Formby said that in some years past, lawmakers have given into political pressure to spend more, without designating a money source. He said that sometimes, legislators rely on leaders to fix any overspending in conference committees.

“Now you get to do the responsible thing,” Formby said.

But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said such votes are used to make a point to leaders, who can heed that message when they confer to reconcile differences between House and Senate bills.

“The purpose of all this is to keep us from saying you ought to spend more money on education, to keep the floor from saying that,” Bryan said.

Both Brown and Bryan say the rule, as it is written, would make it nearly impossible to add unappropriated money from reserve accounts to spending. Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant, also a Republican, have said they want to stop overriding a law that requires the state to set aside 2 percent of its revenue each year. That set-aside is projected to be worth about $94 million in the budget year beginning July 1.

“What you really want to do is get to the reserves and you can never have that vote,” Bryan said.

Brown cited the example of the late Sen. Jack Gordon, who last year persuaded the Senate to increase funding for community colleges by $15 million. Gordon didn’t designate a revenue source, which would be impermissible under the proposed rule.

He said that the bill, in particular, would keep Republicans from crossing over to band with minority Democrats to defy GOP leadership.

“I think on education that might happen. That’s what they’re afraid of,” Brown said. “They want the leadership of the house to control the budget process.”

Brown also criticized a provision that allows a chamber to designate for amendment spending bills that are still being considered by the other chamber.

“It lets one house amend bills that are in the other house,” Brown said. “It’s crazy.”