Lawmakers consider delaying 2021 session because of COVID-19 pandemic

Published 6:07 am Monday, December 7, 2020

BY BOBBY HARRISON  AND GEOFF PENDER

MISSISSIPPI TODAY

Legislative leaders are discussing whether to postpone the bulk of the 2021 legislative session until later in the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mandates of the state Constitution require the Legislature to convene the 2021 session on Jan. 5, 2021. Discussions have been held on convening that day, addressing some time sensitives issues and recessing until a later date. Early March has been discussed as a possible time to reconvene, according to sources close to legislative leaders.

It does not appear a decision has been reached on recessing the session. There also appears to be some major opposition to the proposal.

“I just don’t see us doing that, not while schools are open and teachers and others are working,” said House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach. “I think the Legislature needs to be working, too.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, were not available for comment Friday on the possible early recess.

In recent days, COVID-19 infections in the state have exceeded past peaks, resulting in many of the state’s largest hospitals, including in the Jackson area, exceeding capacity.

Having 174 legislators and all the additional personnel associated with a legislative session meeting in Jackson could result in a sizable increase in coronavirus cases. During this year’s session, scores of legislators and staff, including Gunn and Hosemann, contracted the coronavirus while in session at the Capitol.

“Obviously, there is great concern with the ICU bed situation in the Jackson area and we would not want to do anything to contribute to that problem,” said Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi. “The safety of our membership and the public is the greatest concern and priority.’

Whenever the Legislature meets in 2021, there are expected to be extraordinary safety precautions in place. For instance, the House leadership has already opted to suspend its page program for the upcoming session.

Postponing the bulk of the session until March possibly could provide time for a COVID-19 vaccine to become available, theoretically reducing the risk of spreading the virus. In addition, it would give legislators more time to look at state tax collections to gather more information on the amount of revenue that would be available to craft a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. There remains uncertainty on how the pandemic will impact the economy in the coming months and thus affect revenue collections.

In 2020, as the coronavirus began to surge in March, the Legislature took a long break and ultimately remained in session until October dealing with issues surrounding COVID-19. The legislative session was scheduled to end in early May in 2020.

In 2021, the session is scheduled to conclude in April. To extend the session past the scheduled end date (known as sine die), a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in each chamber must agree. If the decision is made in January to recess until a later date, that also will require a two-thirds vote