This time of year it might be more accurate to say the lemmings are in session rather than saying legislators are in session.
Lemmings, of course, are cold-weather living rodents that have come to symbolize the inability of people to think for themselves.
When it comes to putting together a state budget, members of the Mississippi Legislature have little opportunity to think for themselves. As the more than 100 bills that fund state government work their way through the process, legislators will ask questions, complain about the funding levels for programs and even offer a few amendments to change those funding levels.
But in reality, the budget put forth by the leadership is basically what legislators will agree to and pass.
Options for the rank-and-file legislator are limited.
The reason they have limited options is because of a rule change passed in 2012. In 2012, the first year where Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in modern history, they passed the most significant legislative rules change since the 1980s.
The change essentially took away the ability of a rank-and-file member of the Legislature to have any input in the budgeting process. The rule stipulates, that if a member wants to amend a bill to give an agency more funding than what the leadership recommends, the legislator most identify the agency that will receive the corresponding revenue cut.
In theory, the rule sounds reasonable. The intent is to ensure that the budget proposal is balanced. The leadership does not want a member going to the well of the chamber and offering an amendment to put more money in education, for instance, without taking the responsibility of providing the origin of the additional money for education.
The only problem is that the rule change is way too restrictive.
For instance, despite the ongoing revenue shortfall, there is probably around $500 million in various accounts that could be used to shore up budget holes. Now it might or might not be good policy to use those funds to plug the depleted state budget, but a legislator should have the right to offer an amendment to his colleagues to use those reserve funds.
But under the legislative rules, such an amendment cannot be offered.
And if the leadership, as it often does, meets during the final days of the session to raise the revenue estimate, meaning additional money to appropriate, the rank-and-file member cannot offer legislation on how that money is spent.
That decision is left solely to three or four members from each chamber.
In short, legislators gave away any power they had to impact the budgeting process to House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, and their Appropriations chairs.
They can only follow the leadership’s recommendations on the budget – like lemmings. In popular culture, lemmings are associated with mass suicide, though, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that is a myth.
But it still begs the question of whether legislators are following the leadership off a budget cliff.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol correspondent. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9939.