COLUMN: What's 'outside the call' is a matter of ongoing legislative debate

JACKSON – Mississippi’s Constitution gives the governor the sole authority “to convene the Legislature in extraordinary session” and the sole authority to designate “the subjects and matters to be considered.”
The control of special sessions is one of the more substantial powers the Constitution gives the governor.
The latitude of the House and Senate in special or extraordinary session has often been debated in the arcane but fascinating world of legislative rules. In general, the Legislature can act on the subjects and matters of the special session in any way that would be permissible during regular session.
If the governor calls a special session to pass incentives to lure a Toyota plant to Northeast Mississippi, the Legislature cannot amend that special session agenda to provide a pay raise to teachers or to build a new university on the Gulf Coast.
On the other hand, the Legislature might be able to amend the bill to provide incentives to companies that supply parts to Toyota or even to all auto manufacturing suppliers.
Barbour has consistently put in what is known as the call for the special session the exact bill he wants the Legislature to take up. But in no shape, form or fashion is the Legislature bound by that bill. The Legislature can change that bill or take up another one on the same subject matter.
Last week Barbour called the Legislature back in special session to deal with budget bills for the Public Service Commission and the Public Utilities Staff. During the special session, the House also passed a budget bill to fund the state’s 15 community mental health centers.
The governor vetoed funding for the centers earlier this month, placing the facilities, their supporters say, in danger of having to dramatically reduce services and in some cases close. Since the Legislature could not take up the Barbour veto during the special session, the Democratic House leaders were looking for other ways to get funds to the centers.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for taking up the mental health funding legislation in the special session. They reasoned it was outside the governor’s call – not on the special session agenda set by Barbour. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said he, like McCoy and House leaders, was concerned about funding for the community mental health centers, but that his hands were tied because the issue was not in the agenda set by Barbour. Hence funding for the community mental heath centers died in Bryant’s Senate.
McCoy and others reasoned that the governor called the Legislature back to the Capitol to take up budget issues. The governor cannot control what budget issues the Legislature takes up.
Just as the Constitution is clear that only the governor can call and set the agenda for special sessions, it also is clear that only the Legislature can to appropriate funds. It is probably the most important duty the Legislature has.
Perhaps it will shed some light on the issue to imagine that the governor was calling the Legislature back in special session to fund public education. In that special session, if legislators felt additional funding was needed for education, would/should the governor’s limited special session agenda prevent them from opening up the budgets for Corrections, Public Safety, the Attorney General’s office, Gaming Commission, or any other agency to garner more funds for education?
There is an argument to be made that when the Legislature deals with the budget for any agency, all agency budgets must be on the table. How one agency is funded could impact the funding for another or even for multiple agencies. After all, that is the Legislature’s job – to make hard decisions on where funding should be increased and where funding should be cut.
By the same token, there is an argument that in this particular case the scope of the special session was narrow – only dealing with how to appropriate funds for two related agencies.
Like so many issues dealing with the law, reasonable people can reach different opinions. But for people concerned about funding for the community mental health centers, there was an option offered by McCoy and the House leadership.
I guess reasonable minds can differ on whether it was a reasonable option.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal