September 9, 2019 9:52:11 AM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi governor's race this year pits Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has shaped the state budget-writing process, against Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who has brought in some of the money that pays for state government.
In the weeks leading to the Nov. 5 general election, voters will hear plenty of back-and-forth between the two candidates about budget priorities -- and that's as it should be. Spending public money is a core function of state government, and the governor has the power to sign or veto budgets that lawmakers adopt.
Reeves served eight years as state treasurer before winning the lieutenant governor's race in 2011. As lieutenant governor, he presides over the state Senate. He also serves on the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee, alternating the chairmanship every other year with Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn.
The Budget Committee holds public hearings each September to start considering state agencies' requests for money. Committee members also adopt recommendations that shape the broad outlines of state government's overall spending plans.
All 122 House members and 52 senators get to vote on the details of the budget each spring, usually during the final weeks of a legislative session, when the pace is hectic and most lawmakers rely on committee chairmen for explanations about what's in the final product.
As lieutenant governor, Reeves has kept tight control of the Senate's part of the budget process. It's a habit that supporters see as an admirable way to limit spending and critics see as a heavy-handed method of Reeves getting exactly what Reeves wants.
During final budget negotiations of the 2019 session, for example, Reeves and other Senate leaders got $2 million for a program that covers some of the cost for children with special needs to attend private schools. Some House Democrats balked, but the $2 million remained in place.
Hood has been attorney general for 16 years, and that office is part of the executive branch of government. The power of budget writing belongs to the legislative branch, which means the attorney general can make recommendations about spending, but legislators are under no obligation to accept them. That aspect of being attorney general, incidentally, is good preparation for being governor: Mississippi lawmakers have a long history of ignoring governors' budget recommendations, regardless of party.
During a news conference last week, Hood released a stack of letters he had sent to Reeves, Gunn and other top budget writers since 2013. They showed how much money the attorney general's office had collected for the state from a variety of lawsuits, including one against pharmaceutical companies over the average prices they charged the Mississippi Medicaid program for drugs.
A February 2014 letter, for example, showed the attorney general's office was depositing nearly $52.7 million into the state general fund. In March 2015, the amount was just over $50 million. In February 2016, Hood wrote that his office was depositing $66.2 million from various settlements, and that the state would receive $150 million from the BP oil spill case.
The amounts represent a sliver of Mississippi's revenue, with the state-funded portion of the overall budget topping $5 billion to $6 billion the past several years. The budgets grow larger with the addition of federal money.
In the letters, Hood recommended that lawmakers spend money on specific services, including mental health. He gave the letters to reporters after a federal judge ruled that Mississippi has been doing too little to provide mental health care for people outside of institutional settings.