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Analysis: Could legislator’s disdain for Gov. Tate Reeves create lasting bipartisanship at the Capitol?

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Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn called House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Johnson last Friday with a rare invitation: He wanted Democrats to work with Republican leadership on crafting a major policy initiative.

Gunn told Johnson that another fight with Gov. Tate Reeves looked possible over what would become a $300 million relief package for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and he wanted Democrats at the table early in case a veto override became necessary later.

Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez

“I’m not gonna lie. I laughed. I thought to myself, ‘This will last one or two meetings, and it’ll fizzle out and fall apart,’” Johnson told Mississippi Today. “I told the speaker, ‘If we’re going to do this, it has to be real.’ And it was. They proved me wrong. Every step of the way, every point that we thought was important that (House Republicans) hadn’t considered, they considered them.”

Last week marked one of the first sincere bipartisan efforts under the Capitol dome since January 2012, when Gunn was first elected speaker and Republicans earned a supermajority in both the House and Senate. By the end of the negotiating process, Democrats got several items added from their wish list, including a $40 million pot of relief money set aside for minority-owned businesses.

“Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, felt good walking out of that room when the deal was done,” Johnson said. “It’s the way the Legislature should work. It’s more effective when it’s not always about party.”

Republican leaders have taken extraordinary care over the past decade to strip Democrats of any semblance of influence they once held in Jackson, and Gunn led the effort to shut Democrats out of the legislative process. He offered no major committee chairmanships to Democrats. He split Democrats and Republicans on the House chamber voting board so everyone could clearly see if Republicans defected from the party line. He even took office space from Democrats.

“We pull out the roster of our team, and we pick leaders off that list,” Gunn said in a commanding 2015 Neshoba County Fair speech about the rise of the Mississippi Republican Party. “Your man, because he’s a Democrat, is not on that list.”

Much has changed since Gunn gave that speech. Then, he didn’t have a Republican governor who publicly threatened to veto Republican policy. He didn’t have a Republican governor who suggested that “people would die” because of Republican legislative action. He didn’t have a Republican governor who suggested that Republican lawmakers were ignoring the state Constitution or “trying to steal” spending authority of federal funds from the executive branch.

Now he does.

And while Republicans hold a three-fifths supermajority, they do not hold a veto proof two-thirds majority. If Reeves were to veto any bill the Legislature passes, Republican legislative leaders would need Democratic votes to override the veto. That’s why Gunn called Johnson last weekend, and that’s why Johnson and the Democratic caucus were able to score the rare win.

Lawmakers of both parties in both the House and the Senate told Mississippi Today this week that one thing drove the partisan sea change last week: the desire to defeat Reeves.

“Almost to the man and woman, everybody in the House and many in the Senate have an experience with Tate Reeves that makes them feel no desire to work with him in any way,” Johnson said. “We spent eight years with him (as lieutenant governor) laying down the law. It always had to be his way. Now we get the chance to be legislators and not be dictated to, and Democrats are at the table because of it. Mississippi is better off because Tate Reeves is no longer able to do that.”

Rep. Trey Lamar, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a top lieutenant of Gunn, acknowledged that the Democrats were brought to the table because of a possible veto. Lamar, a longtime opponent of Reeves, also said that “some of the public statements (Reeves) made about members of the Legislature” fueled the decision to reach across the aisle.

John Thomas “Trey” Lamar, R-Senatobia

“As far as I’m concerned, I expect (Democrats) to have a seat at the table regardless of what the policy issue is,” Lamar said. “When we have input from different groups of people, oftentimes, like we saw last week, the byproduct is a better piece of legislation. I welcome that and look forward to working with them in the future.”

Republican and Democratic leaders appear optimistic about their ability to work together moving forward. The new goodwill Gunn earned in the House last week is balanced with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s efforts since he was elected last November to include Democrats. Hosemann offered several key Senate chairmanships to Democrats, and he’s regularly kept Democrats informed of his deliberations with the House leadership.

“Senate Democrats have achieved more in two or three months under the current leadership than we did in the entire eight years under (Reeves),” said Sen. Derrick Simmons, the Democratic leader in the Senate. “It starts with inclusion and respect for different perspectives. … I’m very optimistic about it being a new day in the Mississippi Legislature.”

Last week, as Gunn predicted, Reeves did not discount the possibility of a veto of the small business relief package. Because of the bipartisan negotiation process, that small business bill appears veto-proof.

But in the weeks to come, lawmakers will consider coronavirus relief packages over more politically contentious issues like public education, health care, access to polls and corrections. Those items have generated more disagreement between party leaders over the years.

“Until something shows itself to be different, we’re going to keep working together as a team,” Johnson said. “We talk about this being a crisis, but I think Mississippi has been in a state of crisis for at least 10 years. It’s absurd that anyone would talk about Republican versus Democrat when you’ve got the highest poverty rate and lowest income of any state in the nation. It’s not just Democrats who are affected by that. Those things cross party lines and racial lines. That’s a sentiment I think all of us share, and I hope it keeps us going.”


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

COVID-19

Dr. Woodward: ‘Wear a damn mask’

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(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

Dr. LuAnn Woodward’s frustration is palpable in a tweet she has pinned at the top of her Twitter page.

“Wear a damn mask. Wash your hands. It’s not a big deal. It’s not political. Just do it!” she wrote in July as the first of four bullet points.

Whatever was relevant in July is even more so in November as cases and hospitalizations rocket past July’s numbers.

Woodward is the vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, a place that is intimately familiar with the challenges of providing health care in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of this week, UMMC was out of critical care beds, similar to all of the big hospitals in Mississippi.

“As of 6:46 am today, UMMC’s bed status is -31 beds, which means that 31 people are admitted but waiting for a bed to become available,” she wrote Wednesday in another tweet. “Who will be #32 or #33 or #34?”

Not all of those beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, but the growing influx of critically ill virus patients means there aren’t beds for people suffering in car crashes, from heart attacks, severe asthma and a host of other potentially life-threatening conditions.

“Those of us in health care are numb, frustrated and so very tired,” she wrote.

Woodward isn’t the only health care leader in Mississippi loudly ringing alarm bells to get people’s attention about the pandemic.

“Our hospitalizations are growing at a rate that is absolutely terrifying,” said State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, who heads up the Mississippi State Health Department, in a media briefing Wednesday.

“Without a doubt, I think we’re headed into the darkest period of the coronavirus for Mississippi.”

Dobbs issued guidance Wednesday urging Mississippians against not to attend any unnecessary gatherings, including Christmas parties, just as he asked people to avoid large Thanksgiving celebrations. Other gatherings to avoid include family gatherings outside of the household or nuclear family, weddings, funerals (other than close family and preferably outdoors), sporting events and in-person church services.

Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said they are concerned that high school athletic activities are spreading the virus.

“Dr. Byers and I have long advocated for a delay or limitation on high school athletics, especially in situations where people can’t be socially distant and safe, and I think part of that is we’re paying the price for that right now,” Dobbs said.

The guidance from the nation’s top health care officials around the country mirror what Woodward, Dobbs and Byers have been advocating for months: Wear a mask in public. Avoid groups of people. Observe social distancing. Wash your hands. None of it is difficult and none of it is political, despite those who would have you believe otherwise. The same advice is coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University and many more.

To date, Gov. Tate Reeves has not issued another statewide mask mandate, despite the urging of health officials. He remains convinced that his county-by-county piecemeal approach is more effective. As of Tuesday, 54 of Mississippi’s 82 counties are under restrictive measures due to their increased COVID-19 case counts. Those measures include mandates to wear masks in public and other social distancing orders.

“I am willing to take the political heat … because I believe in my heart and my mind that this is the best strategy to protect my fellow Mississippians,” Reeves said in an interview with WAPT Tuesday.

During the past week, Mississippi set records for one-day new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The seven-day average of new cases was over 1,600 Wednesday, exceeding the previous high set in July of 1,360. Many of Mississippi’s major hospitals have no more room in their ICUs. All of those increases are before the expected spike of new cases from Thanksgiving gatherings, which should begin to show up within the next week or two.

“We need to take responsibility for ourselves, because it’s so widespread right now, and we’re not seeing the community effort out there,” Dobbs said Tuesday. “I’m really asking you guys to protect yourselves.”

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Mississippi VA announces changes to its annual Wreaths Across America ceremonies

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(photo courtesy MSVA)

This year, both State Veterans Memorial Cemeteries at Newton and Kilmichael will host private ceremonies for families with loved ones buried at both locations. The events will be held Saturday, Dec. 19, at 11 a.m.

“We must do our part to ensure that we keep as many Veteran families as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and unfortunately, that means cutting back on the number of attendees at this year’s events”, said Mississippi VA Executive Director Stacey Pickering in a statement. “However, we feel that it is important to honor our resting heroes and allow their families to spend quality time at these hallowed grounds.”

Close to 1,260 Veterans and their families have chosen the State Veterans Memorial Cemeteries as their final resting place. For more information on both State Veterans Memorial Cemeteries, click here.

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‘Check Your Charity’ helps you be an informed giver

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(Photo by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

Mississippians are known for their generosity, especially during the holiday season. During the last reporting year, Mississippi charities brought in roughly $1.7 billion. As we creep closer to Christmas, it’s important to remember the wisest giver is an informed giver. The annual “Check Your Charity” campaign encourages Mississippians to check the validity of a charity or organization on the secretary of state website before making a donation.

“Our Check Your Charity campaign aligns with one of our agency’s missions to make government more transparent,” said Secretary of State Michael Watson in a release. “We are committed to providing as much information as possible to shield Mississippians from scammers, not just during the holiday season but all year-round. This has been an incredibly challenging year for many families, and I am incredibly proud of the work our Charities Division is doing to protect Mississippians’ hard-earned money.”

All charitable organizations are required to register with the secretary of state’s office and renew yearly. Certain types of organizations are exempt from registration but are nevertheless required to file a notice of exemption with the secretary’s office.

Each year, the secretary’s office publishes a “Report on Charitable Organizations in Mississippi” to provide transparency and keep citizens informed of critical financial information regarding Mississippi charities. The annual report includes information such as total revenue, fundraising expenses and charitable purpose expenses.

Click here to view the 2020 Report on Charitable Organizations in Mississippi.

Mississippians should keep the following in mind when making decisions regarding charitable donations:

  • Check your charity. Use the “Charity Search” portal on the secretary of state website to verify the charity is registered with the State. Ask questions before giving and be sure to ask for answers in writing. Legitimate charities will always welcome your inquiries.
  • Avoid pressure tactics. You do not have to make a donation immediately; take time to evaluate the information provided by the charity.
  • Watch for similar names. Many charities have similar names. Often, scam artists intentionally use names resembling those of respected groups. Take a few extra minutes to research the charity online so you can be sure your donation goes to the right place.
  • Be wary of telephone calls. Always get the name of the person calling and the exact name and spelling of the charity. Ask if the caller is a professional fundraiser, and if they are, ask how much of your donation actually goes to the charity.
    • Consumer organizations recommend at least 65% of a charity’s total expenses be spent on program activities directly related to the charity’s purpose.
  • Verify mail solicitations. Be wary of mail containing novelty items you can keep “if you contribute.” Federal law states that unless you ordered the item, you can keep it without contributing.
  • Always get receipts. Receipts are vital for tax deductions and provide a tracking mechanism for donations. To be safe, always donate by credit card or check (directly to the charity).

Taking these extra steps will not only protect you, it will also ensure your donation goes to those who need it most. For more information, contact the Charities Division at 601-359-1599, or click here to send an email to one of the Charities team members.

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