Gov. Phil Bryant on Tuesday laid to rest weeks of speculation about what will — or won’t — be included in the special legislative session he has ordered for June 5.
A state lottery, he said, won’t be. Neither will any other stream of infrastructure money, unless House and Senate leaders announce some solid agreement in the next few days — unlikely.
Measures to calm down credit bureaus, Bryant said, might be on tap.
“I’m not going to move forward with something the (House) speaker is not necessarily for, and that could face some conflict in the Senate,” Bryant said of the lottery in an interview with The Clarion-Ledger on Tuesday.
Besides unfinished budget work the Legislature must complete before the new fiscal year starts July 1, Bryant said he will ask lawmakers to pass measures about the budget process to allay concerns of credit rating agencies over Mississippi’s government finances.
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But Bryant said he otherwise wants lawmakers to quickly finish their budget work and spare taxpayers expenses that can run upwards of $100,000 a day, counting staff, security and utilities costs for a session. The governor, who has sole authority to call a special session and set its agenda, said he doesn’t plan to add anything to his special session “call” that would warrant several days or more of legislative or partisan debate.
In a standoff between the GOP leaders of the House and Senate over road and bridge funding and internet sales taxes, lawmakers killed the annual Mississippi Department of Transportation and State Aid roads budgets. An 11th-hour snag over what Attorney General Jim Hood called “juvenile games” with his budget also left the AG budget in limbo after the regular three-month legislative session ended March 29.
Bryant set the June 5 date for the special session in late April, but did not outline its agenda beyond completing the unfinished budgets. Since then, House Speaker Philip Gunn and others have voiced hope they could try to find additional funding streams for road and bridge work and have drafted a passel of proposals, Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to revisit funding for health and mental health agencies that suffered large budget cuts. State Treasurer Lynn Fitch called for Bryant to add an equal-pay-for-women measure to the mix. Bryant himself speculated that he might let lawmakers try to pass a state lottery, an issue the governor has warmed to over the last few months.
But Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves do not appear to have reached any House-Senate agreement on how to scrape up more road and bridge money. Gunn opposes a state lottery and has formed a committee to study its pros and cons over the summer.
And, Bryant said, the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, has not endorsed a state lottery as a means to fund infrastructure.
“My whole purpose in talking about the lottery was to see if the Legislature was interested in dedicating it to roads and bridges, because that’s about the only option we have for more money right now,” Bryant said. “… I would want it to have the support of the MEC (to include it in a special session) and they have not really said. The last conversation I had (with MEC officials) was they were looking at it, not saying no, but not saying yes yet, either. It is not something that has to be done during a special session.”
In May, Standard and Poor’s Financial Services downgraded Mississippi’s “outlook” for its state government credit rating from stable to negative. In August, Fitch downgraded the state’s credit rating on $4 billion in outstanding debt by one ranking and Moody’s lowered the state’s credit outlook to negative. The state has suffered revenue shortfalls and Bryant has been forced to raid the state’s rainy day fund and make numerous emergency mid-year budget cuts over the last two budget years. S&P warned investors that Mississippi could face further budget problems because of tax cuts lawmakers have passed coupled with slow economic growth.
Bryant said his office is working on some “budget controls” and process changes to address credit rating agencies’ concerns. He hopes to have them ready in time for the special session. He said the measures shouldn’t be subject to political or partisan debate.
“I’m very serious about the ratings bureaus and doing whatever we can to improve the budget situation,” Bryant said. “We are working on some language now — not to the point I can really share it … But there are a few things the ratings bureaus have brought forward that we could address … Hopefully we can strengthen some controls on the budget, such as more easily identifying one-time money.”
The authority to call special sessions and set their agendas is one of a Mississippi governor’s few powers over the legislative branch. Bryant has been frugal with special sessions, calling them mostly for passing incentives for economic development or on issues where lawmakers already have agreements and can leave Jackson quickly.
This will be Bryant’s seventh special session to call since he took office in 2012. Former Gov. Haley Barbour called lawmakers into special session 18 times over eight years and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove called eight special sessions during his four years, including one on tort reform that lasted 83 days.
“I’m very careful with special sessions,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to see something drag on. The easiest thing for all of us is to get in pass those budgets and go home, and perhaps that’s all that needs to be done. But if there is an opportunity and consensus to make improvements to the budget process and not be tied up there for three or four days, then I will take that opportunity.”