House lawsuit calls Governor Reeves’ vetoes into question

The top two leaders in the Mississippi House of Representatives have filed a lawsuit against Governor Tate Reeves regarding his decision to veto a portion of the education appropriations bill and another bill allocating CARES Act funds to a hospital in Tate County.

Filed in Hinds County Chancery Court by Speaker Philip Gunn and Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, the lawsuit claims that the governor does not have the authority to veto particular sections of individual bills, rendering his recent vetoes null and void.

Governor Reeves’ decision to veto a portion of the bill funding the state’s public education system came following the omission of over $24 million in funding for a teacher incentive program, which rewards teachers in A & B rated districts as well as those in districts that improve by a letter grade from the previous year.

In a lengthy social post explaining his decision back on July 8th, Reeves said that a cut to the program would have a negative impact on over 23,000 Mississippi teachers. According to Senator Hob Bryan, the governor was notified that the omission was a mistake and that it would be addressed when lawmakers reconvened in October or January.

Bryan explained that a similar situation occurred when the total cost of a recent teacher pay raise was miscalculated by the Department of Education. With an original price tag of around $60 million, the pay raise passed in March 2019 with an additional $18 million allocated in January 2020 to make up for the original error.

In this case, Gunn and White allege that the governor overstepped the boundaries of his office by choosing to veto portions of these bills. The portions that Governor Reeves chose to send back to lawmakers included the funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (the state’s funding formula), funding for the Mississippi School for the Blind & Deaf and the Chickasaw Cession School District.

The lawsuit cites precedent set by Fordice v. Bryan (1995), Barbour v. Delta Correctional Facility Authority (2004), & State ex rel. Teachers & Officers v. Holder (1898) stating that several Supreme Court decisions prohibit this action by the governor.

Gunn and White’s lawsuit calls for the court to issue a “ declaratory judgment.” For most of us (myself included) who need to know what that means, law.com defines this as “a judgment of a court which determines the rights of parties without ordering anything be done or awarding damages.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Governor Reeves said that the lawsuit was a “Hail Mary” attempt to override the veto because the House doesn’t have the requisite number of votes — a 2/3 vote is needed to override a veto.

As for the CARES Act funding, $2 million was earmarked to go the North Oak Regional Medical Center in Tate County, but the governor chose to veto this portion of the bill sending over $130 million to hospitals across the state to aid in their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. While the hospital has been closed for several years as pointed out by Reeves’ Wednesday post, Rep. Trey Lamar stated that the funds were contingent upon the hospital’s ability to reopen this fall. If the hospital did not reopen, the funds would’ve gone elsewhere.

In his post, Governor Reeves called the Republican lawmaker from Tate County a liberal Republican” which he took issue with.

“Why do you have different rules for Tate County’s Hospital and why should the Tate County Hospital be any different just because it is in between ownership? I will tell you why. Apparently, by your own admission, I am a leader of the “opposition” to you in the House. You publicly accuse me of playing political games, while you are literally playing games when people’s health and lives are at stake. The citizens of Senatobia and Tate County do not have access to a hospital for approximately thirty miles in any direction. Nearly everyone I represent can see the immediate and dire need for the hospital to reopen, and the only reason for your veto was your personal animus against me. That is petty and beneath the dignity of your office,” Lamar wrote on Facebook. 

While he intends to call a special session to address the teacher incentive program, Governor Reeves is waiting until the COVID-19 outbreak within the capital has passed. There have also been reports that lawmakers are planning a return on their own.

This lawsuit becomes the latest fracture in the relationship between the governor and the legislature after the two sides publicly feuded over the allocation of Mississippi’s CARES Act funding and the governor’s hardline stance that the state flag could only be changed by a vote of the people.

If you feel so inclined to read the entire 105-page lawsuit, click here.