Since COVID-19 forced a temporary recess in the legislative session, I have been video conferencing with Mississippi’s K-12 students. In one recent AP government class, a student asked: how many constitutional rights do we have to give up during a pandemic?
That’s a poignant question for any state leader.
In recent weeks, businesses have been shut down, Second Amendment rights limited, and Easter Sunday services halted. These decisions were made as the result of a delicate balance between health and safety, and economic rights and freedoms. Our office doesn’t envy decision makers like Governor Reeves who have had to make tough calls. He has done a good job in a year with unprecedented challenges.
But every executive emergency power has its limits, and as we learned in grade school, these boundaries are set in our Constitution.
Recently, the Mississippi Legislature reconvened briefly to begin appropriating federal funds sent to Mississippi for direct and indirect COVID-19 expenses. The governor was provided almost $35 million in discretionary money. Another $800 million was designated to specific agencies and programs, and those funds are already available for agencies to use. A separate $1.25 billion, the Coronavirus Relief Fund, will be used for other related expenses like COVID-19 testing and equipment for hospitals, expansion of distance learning technology like broadband to help teacher and students, and grants for struggling small businesses. We are working quickly and responsibly to tackle these needs in our State, and we have provided the governor with $100 million to use for emergencies until we return to session in two weeks.
There are four primary reasons the Legislature began appropriating the $1.25 billion. First, the Constitution specifically assigns appropriation authority to the Legislature. Ceding a power solely delegated to one branch of government to another is not only unlawful—it’s unconstitutional.
Second, the Legislature is required to act with transparency. Floor debate and committee meetings under the Capitol Dome are subject to the Open Meetings Act. The House and Senate floor proceedings are broadcast online for everyone to see and hear. That means money deposited from the federal government into the State Treasury isn’t distributed without the watchful eyes of your elected officeholders.
Third, the Legislature is representative of the people. Our 52 senators and the 122 representatives across the hall come from every walk of life and every corner of the state. Together, they make up the will of our citizenry, and their policy decisions are more reflective of the State than the executive or judicial branch. Your local Senator and Representative literally represent you to make sure your voice is heard in this process.
Finally, after this emergency is over, and some kind of normalcy returns, we will all be forced to live with the consequences of the precedents our elected leaders are setting. That means we need to ensure accountability to the public for our actions, and the best way to achieve that is to adhere to the constitutional duties as a legislative branch of government.
So, how many constitutional rights do we have to give up? As lieutenant governor, the constitutional right of the Legislature to set policy, in a public setting and according to the will of the people of Mississippi, is one I believe we must keep. During times of crisis, following our Constitution is more important than ever.