Spending billions, cutting taxes, fear and loathing: The 2022 legislative session wasn’t pretty, but it was historic

Published 2:00 pm Thursday, April 7, 2022

During the three-month 2022 legislative session, House Speaker Philip Gunn kept a copy of a January Mississippi Today article that noted the Legislature faced unprecedented tasks and questioned whether it “might have to go into extra innings — either extending the regular session or coming back into special session” to get its work done.

The article predicted the session would be “a donnybrook,” given that lawmakers had an extra $4.2 billion to spend and Republican House and Senate leaders and the governor have had trouble agreeing on major issues.

And, it said: “Reaching agreement on the extra spending would be a heavy lift for the 174-member, part-time citizen Legislature. But it also faces another half-dozen or so major issues or chores — redistricting, income tax cuts or elimination, medical marijuana, reinstating the citizen ballot initiative, teacher pay, banning some things about race that are not being taught in Mississippi schools — any one of which could create epic political wrangling.”

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“Well, looking at this list, how did we do?” Gunn said Tuesday night after a session’s-end press conference ended. “We addressed everything on this list.” As for one item in the list left undone — reinstating voters’ rights to ballot initiatives — Gunn said, “The House did pass a ballot initiative.”

The session was something of a donnybrook, with bitter political fighting, standoffs, public recriminations, fear and loathing between the Republican leadership of the House and Senate. Lawmakers did have to extend the session, if only by a week, to get a budget passed. And a few issues were left on the cutting-room floor — notably the ballot initiative and a Senate push to extend Medicaid coverage for new moms to battle Mississippi’s high infant mortality rate.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t smooth, and the end results left many disappointed or mad, but lawmakers did complete an unprecedented amount of work, spending and policy sea change from January 4 through April 5.

Although they often disagreed — and took some not so subtle jabs at each other throughout the session — Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who leads the Senate, agreed at session’s end that it was fruitful.

“We addressed everything from medical marijuana to funding teachers (pay raise) which has been desperately need for so long,” Hosemann said. “… We have the most expansive infrastructure bill we have ever had in this state.”

“By any stretch, the Mississippi Legislature performed this year,” Hosemann said. “There’s lots to go back and look at historically.”

Gov. Tate Reeves was mostly a nonentity this session, except for threatening to veto early medical marijuana plans and taking the occasional political jab at his fellow Republican legislative leaders amid the battle over tax cuts. But on Tuesday, despite having vowed elimination, not just cutting, of state income taxes, he signed a tax cut bill into law and praised lawmakers’ work.

“This is a tremendous victory, and will have a tremendous impact on the average Mississippian and a tremendous impact on our state economy for years to come,” Reeves said.

The 2022 Legislature passed the largest teacher pay raise and income tax cuts in state history. After years of failed attempts, it created a medical marijuana program. After decades of failed attempts, it drew new congressional districts.

The 2022 Legislature spent the largest amount of money in state history — a more than $7 billion state budget plus billions in federal funds — due largely to Congress’ COVID-19 stimulus largesse filling state coffers directly and indirectly.

Lawmakers, using federal American Rescue Plan Act money, are providing cities, counties and rural water associations $750 million in matching money and grants to upgrade antiquated water and sewerage infrastructure.

Haggling over medical marijuana dominated the first weeks of the 2022 session. A standoff over tax cuts — with Gunn adamant that the personal income tax be eliminated and Hosemann insisting more measured cuts during uncertain economic times — dominated the rest.

The tax standoff stalled or halted negotiations on most other measures and on setting a budget and spending federal pandemic money. Hosemann complained that House leaders would not parlay on the budget until a tax agreement was reached near the end of the session, putting things behind schedule and forcing extension of the session and a last-minute scramble to finish work. Rank-and-file lawmakers complained the hasty work at the end forced them to rubber stamp lots of spending and policy decisions by the leaderships with little input.

But at the end, both Gunn and Hosemann downplayed the internecine GOP political battles that dominated much of the session.

“There are going to be disagreements,” Hosemann said. “We have 172(sic) people in the Legislature and on any given day they have 200 opinions.”

By Geoff Pender, Mississippi Today