By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Was Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves a hero for saving the state’s $890 million Medicaid program in the madcap Friday, June 28 windup of the special legislative session? Or a dictator for bending the constitutional barrier against tacking a revenue provision onto a general bill?
In any case, Reeves single-handedly bypassed Gov. Phil Bryant and restored the primary revenue stream – the hospital bed tax – to the Medicaid program after Bryant failed to add the Medicaid revenue machinery to his special session call.
Most folks probably see the dustup over how the Friday night massacre played out under the Capitol dome as just another example of the old adage that legislating is akin to making sausage, something you’d rather not watch. This one was different, however, with ramifications for the future.
House Democrats realized they had been snookered by Reeves’ maneuver, as one Dem said. Their primary goal in the session was to keep language alive in Medicaid legislation that would give them a crack at expanding the program under so-called Obamacare to cover 300,000 mostly working poor who now do not have health insurance. The governor and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both of whom adamantly oppose expansion as too expensive for the state, wanted no language that possibly could provide a pathway to expansion.
Most of all, Bryant and Gunn wanted to eliminate the yearly automatic repealer in Medicaid legislation so Democrats couldn’t have a future shot at installing expansion. Further, and importantly, Bryant and Gunn were believed ready to even risk letting Medicaid float without a revenue stream so the governor could operate the program under executive fiat. Attorney General Jim Hood has said the governor cannot legally do that.
Back to the Friday night massacre: Reeves, after huddling with his closest advisers, had decided that notwithstanding Section 121 of the state constitution barring consideration of matters not in the governor’s special session call, an amendment to the Medicaid general bill would be germane, even though it injected revenue machinery not in the bill. The amendment, carrying $400 million in revenue (from what is called an “assessment” rather than a tax) was quickly injected in the bill without dissent (or a point of order) and senators went home.
That left the House with a rock-and-a-hard-place decision of swallowing the Senate amendment without any changes or pulling the rug out from under 690,000 poor Mississippians who now depend on the program for health care. (Remember, the program was set to expire midnight June 30 if not reauthorized.)
Not since three-time Lt. Gov. Brad Dye occupied the chair has anything close to Reeves’ power grab to undercut a governor (and of the same party, mind you) been seen at the Capitol. What is even stranger is that the pink-cheeked Reeves, considered a Republican ideologue, has built an unlikely liaison with veteran Democrats, among them Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, the University of Virginia educated lawyer who is a stickler for enforcing Senate rules. Of note, when Reeves took office in January 2012, he called on Bryan to write and sponsor the resolution setting out Senate rules, especially the one granting power to the lieutenant governor to appoint Senate standing and special committees and to refer all bills. Those powers, not mentioned in the Constitution, were challenged in an historic 1986 lawsuit. The Supreme Court held that members of the Senate could by their rules grant the powers to the presiding officer at the beginning of the quadrennial term.
Oh yes, how did the Medicaid flap finally come out? You might say it was a two-fer: Both Democrats and Republicans got what they wanted on the annual repealer front. In the general bill side reauthorizing the Medicaid program, the repealer was eliminated. But on the revenue stream side, the yearly repealer was put back in (obviously with Reeves’ okay), meaning that lawmakers will get a shot at expanding Medicaid the next time the program is hauled onto the floor.
As is often said about the Mississippi Legislature, nothing’s over until it’s over. Yogi Berra is still alive and well.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.