Reeves to appeal county judge's ruling on partial vetoes

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves is appealing a judge's ruling that his partial vetoes of a budget bill in July were unconstitutional.

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Reeves filed a notice of appeal Monday afternoon announcing his intentions to take the case to the state Supreme Court, the latest salvo in an ongoing dispute between the governor and fellow Republicans in the legislature who sued him over the vetoes. His action came just hours after Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Tiffany Grove filed her ruling.

On Tuesday, Reeves' spokesperson Parker Briden said the ruling was “not a surprise" and that “one Hinds County judge" was never going to decide the outcome of the case.

“The Governor has always publicly said that this case will end up before the state Supreme Court,” Briden said in a statement.

The Republican governor was sued Aug. 5 by fellow Republicans House Speaker Philip Gunn and Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White, who said Reeves was encroaching on legislators’ power to make budget decisions. The lawmakers pointed to partial vetoes by Reeves on July 8 of two bills to fund state government programs.

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

When legislators were briefly in session in August, they overrode that partial veto. They then passed a separate bill to put money into the school recognition program.

Reeves also issued partial vetoes in House Bill 1782, which proposed allocating a total of about $130 million in federal coronavirus relief money to various agencies. The legislature did not override those vetoes, instead choosing to let the court decide whether Reeves' vetoes were warranted.

In a section allocating $91.9 million to the Mississippi Department of Health, Reeves vetoed a part of the bill that stipulated $2 million of the $91.9 million go 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.

Reeves did not veto other stipulations of the bill, such as that the Mississippi Department of Health give $1.5 million to federally qualified health centers, $1 million specifically to rural hospitals and $80 million to other hospitals.

Citing rulings from the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1995 and 2004, Grove wrote in her decision that while a governor has some rights to veto parts of appropriations bills, a governor cannot approve an appropriation and then veto the conditions of that appropriation.

“Despite his admirable intentions, the Partial Veto by Governor Reeves constituted ‘creative legislative power’ which is outside the purview of his executive authority," Grove wrote.

In Grove’s decision, she said that the two allocations were “not separate, distinct appropriations," but conditions of the $91.9 million appropriation to the Mississippi Department of Health, which Reeves did not specifically object to.

The judge’s ruling means that the state will pay $2 million to North Oaks Regional Medical Center and $6 million to the MAGnet Community Health Disparity Program, by way of the Mississippi Department of Health.

However, Reeves filed a request in court this week asking for those payments to be put on hold until the case goes before the Supreme Court. Gunn and White filed their own motion opposing Reeves' request Tuesday morning. They said that if the payments are delayed, the recipients might never get them even if the Supreme Court rules in their favor, noting all federal coronavirus money needs to be dispersed by the end of the year.

Briden said the constitution provides the governor with the ability to check legislators' ability to award money to special projects.

“We hope the Supreme Court will recognize that check is necessary, guaranteed by the constitution, and should not be eliminated,” Briden said. "We continue to maintain that someone has to hold the Speaker and his crew accountable if they attempt to wrongly funnel money to favored entities.”

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.