When it Comes to Legislation in Mississippi, the Lieutenant Governor Calls the Shots

Filling the entire legislature with politicians who support reproductive rights may be a a huge task, but there is one position to focus on first. The lieutenant governor.

Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. (Clarion Ledger)

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has become the face of the enemy to many in the reproductive rights movement. Between his close contacts with the local anti-choice activists both before, during and after his election in 2011 and his obvious zeal for trying to end access to abortion in the state, Bryant has become the focal point for national advocates concerned that the constitutional right to an abortion may become non-existent to the women of Mississippi.

Imagine my surprise when I was told that if the Democrats hadn’t let Tate Reeves run unopposed, this battle might not be happening at all.

Where I come from, in Minnesota, the governor and lieutenant governor run as a team on a joint ticket. For the Democrats, it is a gender-balanced set of candidates due to party bylaws, for Republicans gender balance sometimes occurs as well, although by choice. Either way the lieutenant governor‘s role, regardless of party, is largely ceremonial.

Not so in Mississippi, where the lieutenant governor has possibly the most influential role in the entire state legislature. For a bill to become a law, it needs a signature from the governor. For a bill to even get a vote, though, it needs the unspoken blessing of the lieutenant governor.

Mississippi Public Radio reporter Jeffery Hess was kind enough to give me the rundown on how a bill becomes a law over lunch on Tuesday. Hess explained that the lieutenant governor, as the head of the senate, has far more power than the governor due to his ability to assign which bills will be heard by which committees in the senate. Really want to see a bill pass? That’s when you send it to a friendly committee, knowing that they will make sure it gets to the floor. Not as excited about another bill? The lieutenant governor will throw it to a hostile committee to be sure it never sees the light of day.

It’s a practice we saw in action last year, when the 2012 “heartbeat ban” bill was sent into Judiciary, where Democratic chair Hob Bryan killed it. And then he killed it again.

Obviously, it’s not a fool-proof system. If you look at the “heartbeat ban” for example, members managed to tack it onto other bills that had already passed out of committee in an attempt to push it out. But Bryan still managed thwart its path to the floor for a full vote.

If the power of the governor and the governor’s mighty veto pen is one worth playing for, the power to steer bills to committees that can push or block legislation is just as important, if not more so. After all, a bill that doesn’t get a vote will never need to be signed or vetoed. Yet in 2011, the Democratic party in Mississippi didn’t even run a candidate to challenge Reeves. Some of this is all armchair quarterbacking and hindsight. In 2011 Reeves was a mostly unknown quantity, a young Republican superstar who had won a convincing victory to be the state’s first Republican treasurer when he was still in his late 20’s. The party was already struggling to financially back candidates in other races, including the governor, and had Amendment 26 to fight as well.

Because his earlier position didn’t delve so much into social issues, it may not have been clear from the start what Reeve’s stance on abortion would be and how much it would influence state policy. Once he moved in April to oust Dr. Carl Reddix, a physician who had a loose affiliation with Jackson Women’s Health Organization, off the state medical board, citing the need for a “qualified doctor” to take over Reddix’s appointment, his views became much more clear.

Would having a reproductive rights supporter in the lieutenant governor role have made a difference on TRAP? It’s hard to tell. After all, the bill also went through Bryan’s judiciary committee, and that one he allowed out for a vote. It’s unclear if there would have been a different committee available that could have kept it from hitting the floor. If nothing else though, at least there would have been a chance to block it from a vote, something that was impossible with an abortion opponent in the seat.

Turning the full legislature is no doubt a pipe dream. But when it comes to finding the one most influential position to try to ensure a reproductive rights-friendly politician is placed, the lieutenant governor is an office to keep an eye on.

At the very least, it can’t be left unopposed.