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Op-ed: When will our state’s Big Three begin working together?

There was a moment near the beginning of the pandemic when Governor Tate Reeves, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, and Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann (from this point forward referred to as the Big Three) were all grappling with how to move the state’s important work forward during the pandemic. The governor and lieutenant governor had just been sworn in to their new positions. The Big Three each faced mounting concerns about the impact of the pandemic on the state—economically and otherwise. The governor had the added burden of communicating to the state’s population the latest concerns from the state health leaders and scientists around keeping Mississippians safe. It was an unprecedented challenge.

There was a lot of hope going into 2020. Three Republicans still held the Big Three offices. This should have been a recipe for success. But there was contentious history between the Big Three and most insiders wondered how that would play out. It quickly became apparent they were not singing from the same hymnal when the first of many wedges would be driven into their relationships.

When federal CARES Act funding came to Mississippi, Hosemann and Gunn called the legislature into session and passed a bill moving control of the funding from the governor to the legislature. Gunn and Hoseman believed it was constitutionally required of them. The governor believed this would unnecessarily slow the process. Some critics called the move by Hosemann and Gunn a power play.

I remember watching Hosemann on SuperTalk Mississippi TV talking with Paul Gallo about the legislative move on the CARES Act funding. Hosemann seemed to pour a little more salt in the governor’s wound, saying, among other things, the governor was doing a fine job with the pandemic. My impression at the time was Hosemann was saying to the governor, essentially: “We’ll handle the important legislative issues, governor. You do your daily news conferences and stay focused on the pandemic.” It was sort of a “pat-on-the-head” to the governor. I remember thinking is this the way Hosemann plans to lead?

Throughout 2020, there were rumblings that Hosemann and Gunn weren’t communicating and had competing priorities. There was a constant buzz behind the scenes about the Big Three: they were not on the same page.

Let’s fast-forward to the current legislative session. There are two bills that demonstrate a disconnect between the speaker and the lieutenant governor. Here’s the first bill as reported on SuperTalk Mississippi News: “Last week, a bill to eliminate the income tax in Mississippi passed the House of Representatives. After that, all eyes shifted across the building to the Senate where the bill faces its next hurdle. During a virtual press conference this afternoon, Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann gave his thoughts on the legislation’s shortcomings.” He listed several shortcomings, not the least of which is he doesn’t agree with the House’s approach or financial analysis.

The second bill that overwhelmingly passed the House would create the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund to strengthen our investment in Mississippi’s outdoors by allocating a percentage of the existing state sales tax on sporting goods for this purpose. It creates a trust fund that will grow to $15 million a year by year three. Having this trust fund will enable Mississippi to capture significant federal and private matching funds. Georgia, for example, made a $20 million investment grow into $100 million dollars. So, clearly, the money we invest will be paid back in significant ways. But once again, Hosemann lists many concerns he has with a House bill. My read on his response to this bill on SuperTalk Mississippi’s Gallo Show was that he was being condescending, speaking of the House as if they didn’t know what they were doing. The bill has many issues, according to Hosemann.

In both cases, it appears Hosemann intends to either kill the bills or make significant changes, but keep in mind these are just two examples of numerous disconnects.

How did we get to a place where bills so important to this state’s future could appear to have so much lack of alignment and coordination? Why aren’t our leaders communicating?

Of the two, clearly, the state income tax bill demonstrates why such a complicated bill would need serious alignment. It’s complicated on a number of levels, but many experts agree successfully eliminating the state income tax would make Mississippi more competitive in the new economy. It also has a serious positive impact on attracting retirees. There are other potentially substantial benefits, but there are potentially devastating shortcomings if the legislature misses on its financial analysis and approach.

You would think the Big Three would be in agreement on something as important as eliminating the state income tax, but that’s definitely not the case. Gunn and Hosemann don’t agree on the approach or the data.

And why hasn’t Governor Reeves stepped in to lead more on this issue? He praised the House for its efforts to eliminate the income tax but had issues with their approach, as well. What more should he be doing to influence this critical issue and to get the Big Three in alignment?

How is it possible that something so complicated with significant financial ramifications to this state could be at a point with so much disconnect? You would think the Big Three would have discussed approach, strategy, data sources, and so on months ago. This is serious business.

Hosemann finds himself in a position as lieutenant governor with significant constitutional power. He knows this, but how will he ultimately be remembered as a leader? Will he be seen as a leader who worked to bring this state’s leadership together working to solve the complicated issues of the day or will he be seen as a controlling leader who wasn’t interested in collaborating?

And while the jury may still be out on Gunn, in terms of the role he can play to bring the Big Three together, it is clear to me that he is working to move the ball forward for this state on a number of focused fronts.

This is a process. Sometimes, it can be unpleasant to watch. That’s often the way the legislative process works, but hopefully, the Big Three can find a way to communicate and work more closely together on the important issues. The state’s future is too important to do otherwise.

About Ricky Mathews: 

Ricky Mathews is the former president and publisher of three different Gulf Coast newspapers: The Sun Herald, The Press-Register, and The Times-Picayune. Ricky retired in 2016 as president of Advance Southeast before joining SuperTalk Mississippi Media in January of 2020. He is currently the host of Coast Vue, a daily show that features people who are working to make Coastal Mississippi a great place to live, work, and play.

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