It’s not often that Governor Phil Bryant and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves get their interests directly in line with each other on a somewhat controversial bill. But such was the case with SB 2567, which sought to consolidate control of the Department of Mental Health under the Governor’s office and away from an unelected board.
You’ve got to hand it to the folks who have built the Department of Mental Health fiefdom that rules its corner of state government. Just under 9,000 employees. Large per capita budget outlays (a hair under 2% of state budget). Outposts strategically placed throughout the state. An ultra-sympathetic media contingency it wields regardless of the state of disarray and lack of performance relative to other states.
There’s no other way to put it. This was a straight up defeat for the Governor and Lt. Governor, and it came at the hands of those that say they’re conservative.
Sen. Chad McMahon (R) was at least honest about why he voted no. He’s got a big constituency in the facility in his district. Others like (erstwhile movement conservative) Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), whose district in Ellisville houses a facility that employs over 1,000, voted no on the bill. I’m sure the folks at Ingalls Shipbuilding love to see his newfound pragmatism when it comes to protecting jobs at the expense of good policy. In fact, a quote on his facebook page yesterday reads “Today we face a dependency on government largesse for almost every need. Our liberties are restricted and government operates outside the rule of law, protecting and rewarding those who buy or coerce government into satisfying their demands.” I guess that’s only if the largesse isn’t located in your district.
The bill passed earlier in the week 25-24 with 3 abstaining. On the motion to table the motion to reconsider, Republican Jennifer Branning (who took Giles Ward spot) switched from yes on the bill to voting against. Democrat Sampson Jackson switched from yes on the bill to no on the motion, and two of the folks who abstained, Juan Barnett (D) and Angela Turner-Ford (D) went from abstaining to no votes. Republican Chris Caughman switched his no to a yes and left the vote 24-27. Sen. Briggs Hobson (R) abstained, out of his deference to leadership, on both votes .
On the merits, this bill may not have been perfect, but the clearly conservative approach would be to put Department of Mental Health under elected supervision. Subject to federal lawsuits, the agency clearly underperforms. Tennessee, a state with twice as many people, serves over 50% more people in their state with 1/3rd the employees and spending about 20% less as a percentage of their state budget than does Mississippi. The stats are similarly alarming in comparison to other similarly situated southern states.
Whether or not there will be another bite at the legislative apple at this point is unclear. There’s certainly the ability either through the confines of a revenue bill or through the appropriations process to cut the Mental Health budget to try and coerce corrective behavior. The other option, which is somewhat nuclear and also somewhat unlikely, is to include this bill on a special session call. It’s conceivable that there will be one for MAEP and figuring out how to rework the school funding formula. It wouldn’t be a bridge too far to try and tackle this behemoth again on something that isn’t a deadline day where everyone’s attention is squarely focused on the issue at hand.
Regardless, this is the sort of vote that get noted when 2019 rolls around. Phil Bryant and Tate Reeves both have millions in their PAC/campaign accounts. And there are outside groups that have fundraising as well that have had a real impact (see 2015 legislative races and the Charter School issue as an example). For those who like inside baseball, these votes are the ones that put a target on incumbents’ backs.
So even though it’s no longer a bill (at this point in time), SB 2567 is our #msleg . . . #billoftheday.