Attorneys: Mississippi gov properly vetoed parts of bills

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves acted within his constitutional powers when he issued partial vetoes of budget bills this year, the state attorney general’s office is arguing in court papers.

The attorneys filed their arguments on behalf of the governor Thursday in Hinds County Chancery Court. They were responding to a lawsuit filed Aug. 5 by the two top leaders of the Mississippi House, who are also Republicans.

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White said in their suit against the governor that Reeves was encroaching on legislators’ power to make budget decisions. The lawsuit says the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled in multiple cases that the state constitution prohibits a governor from vetoing a portion of a budget bill.

However, Reeves’ attorneys argue that his partial vetoes were different than those by previous governors because Reeves’ predecessors had tried to veto conditions that legislators put on specific spending plans.

“Governor Reeves did not veto a condition of an appropriation. Instead, he vetoed two separable, distinct, and complete appropriations,” his attorneys wrote.

On July 8, Reeves vetoed parts of two bills to fund state government programs for the year that began July 1.

He vetoed multiple sections of House Bill 1700, the education budget bill, because it did not include nearly $25 million for the school recognition program that provides bonus pay for teachers in public schools that show significant improvement or that maintain high performance.

The other partial vetoes were in House Bill 1782, which allocated federal coronavirus relief money to various agencies. Reeves vetoed $2 million to North Oaks Regional Medical Center, a hospital that is closed in Tate County. The governor said because it was closed, North Oaks had not provided care to COVID-19 patients. Reeves also vetoed $6 million to the MAGnet Community Health Disparity Program. He wrote that he was uncomfortable spending that money because he was unfamiliar with the program.

The House leaders’ lawsuit says the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 1898, 1995 and 2004 that a governor cannot veto parts of budget bills.

Referring to the 2004 case, the lawsuit says, “our high court made it clear that it meant what it had said in the course of the previous century – the governor of our state still does not have the legal authority to pick and choose line items of appropriations bills he likes and line items he doesn’t like.”

When legislators were briefly in session in August, they overrode Reeves’ partial veto of the education budget bill. They then passed a separate bill to put money into the school recognition program. That leaves the partial vetoes of the coronavirus relief money as the only unresolved issue.

In papers filed Friday, an attorney for Gunn and White asked a judge to uphold the previous Supreme Court rulings and declare that Reeves’ partial vetoes of the relief money were invalid.

Earlier this year, legislators prevailed in a power struggle with Reeves over who has the authority to spend coronavirus relief money from the federal government. Reeves said he did, but legislators asserted control over the money by saying the state constitution gives the legislative branch the power to make budget decisions.

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