JACKSON, Miss. — Two Mississippi legislators are suing Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and others, saying a state law allowing governors to make midyear budget cuts is unconstitutional.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit Wednesday on behalf of Reps. Bryant Clark of Pickens and John Horhn of Jackson, both Democrats. They say the state law that allows the cuts violates the separation of powers that reserves budget-writing power to legislators.
“Mississippi’s midyear budget cuts statute delegates to the executive branch the power to reduce appropriations, which is purely a legislative function,” the suit states.
The two lawmakers are asking Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary to temporarily freeze cuts while the lawsuit is pending. Ultimately, they want the judge to throw out the law and order the state to rescind the cuts made to all agencies.
The suit also names Department of Finance and Administration Executive Director Laura Jackson, State Treasurer Lynn Fitch and the Mississippi Department of Education as defendants.
Bryant, in a statement, called the suit “ridiculous” and said it was politically motivated. He also said that if Clark and Horhn won, it would make it harder to keep the state solvent.
“This latest attempt by the Democrats and their allies to use the court system in a desperate grasp for relevance poses a genuine danger to Mississippi’s credit rating,” Bryant said. “Rating agencies have said time and again that executive authority to balance a state’s budget is a primary determiner of credit worthiness.”
The Republican has cut $171 million from the state budget since July, including about $20 million from aid to schools. Bryant has cut schools less, in percentage terms, than many other agencies, but Clark and Horhn focused on school funding. Clark said in a sworn statement that “my constituents urge me to do everything in my power” to maximize funding to K-12 schools.
The governor also has withdrawn $50 million from the state rainy day fund to cushion shortfalls, and was given legislative OK to withdraw $50 million more.
It’s not the first time separation-of-powers issues have been litigated in Mississippi. In 1983, then-Attorney General Bill Allain won a landmark lawsuit finding that it violated separation of powers for legislators to serve as voting members of executive-branch agencies. The decision chipped away at the micromanagement of agencies by lawmakers, although they remain more powerful in Mississippi than in other states.
Clay Chandler, a spokesman for Bryant, said the administration believes that the 1983 decision supports the proposition that the governor has power to make midyear budget cuts.
“The legislature thus may not administer an appropriation once it has been lawfully made and is prohibited from imposing new limitations, restrictions or conditions on the expenditure of such funds, short of full legislative approval,” the decision stated.
The suit, though, says that budget control function should not give Bryant the power to cut budgets.
Margaret Ann Morgan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Hood, said lawyers are still reviewing the suit and declined comment.