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Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, left, listens as State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, discusses the state's efforts to reduce and limit transmission from the COVID-19 virus, Monday, July 20, 2020, during a press briefing in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Analysis: 1st months not what Reeves expected as governor


Republican Tate Reeves has made clear that his first six months as Mississippi governor didn’t shape up the way he expected.

Reeves took office in January after eight years as lieutenant governor and eight before that as state treasurer.

A pandemic wasn’t expected when Reeves campaigned last year, and responding to the new coronavirus has occupied most of his time as governor.

“In 2020, things aren’t like they were in 2019,” Reeves said Friday. “2019, I was running a political campaign, working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and I never thought I would long for those days. But I can assure you that I long for those days rather than dealing with this virus.”

The new coronavirus was first detected in Mississippi in early March, weeks after the first U.S. cases were reported. Reeves closed schools that month and set a statewide stay-at-home order that remained in place a few weeks. He gradually eased restrictions on hair salons, restaurants and other types of businesses. He has set some new restrictions lately, including a mask mandate in some counties.

Several weeks ago, Reeves lost a power struggle with the Legislature over who controls $1.25 billion in pandemic relief money that Mississippi is receiving from the federal government.

The Mississippi Constitution created a strong legislative branch and a weak executive. When Reeves presided over the Senate as lieutenant governor, he wielded power over many decisions, including budget writing.

As governor, Reeves argued that because he is the state’s chief executive, he should make decisions about the federal money. The House and Senate asserted control, making the long-established case that setting budgets is a legislative responsibility.

The on-again, off-again legislative session still isn’t over because budgets for education and the Department of Marine Resources remain unresolved. It’s unclear when legislators will return to Jackson because at least 31 of them — and possibly more — are still recovering from a coronavirus outbreak that occurred after people in the Capitol widely disregarded safety precautions during June.

The session included landmark votes by the House and Senate to retire the 126-year-old Mississippi flag that was the last state banner in the U.S. to include the Confederate battle emblem.

Critics have long condemned the rebel flag as racist. People who voted in a 2001 statewide election chose to keep the design. Legislative leaders — including Reeves, as lieutenant governor — said for years that there was no consensus in the House and Senate to change the flag.

As a candidate and during his first months as governor, Reeves had a consistent answer to flag questions: If the design were to be reconsidered, it should be done in another statewide vote.

Momentum for change grew quickly during June, as widespread protests focused attention on racial injustice. When it became clear that legislators had a two-thirds majority needed to suspend normal deadlines and file a bill to change the flag, Reeves conceded that he would sign a bill if they passed one. Not coincidentally, two-thirds is the same margin needed to override a governor’s veto.

During a small ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion on June 30, Reeves did something he probably did not envision at the beginning of 2020: He signed the bill retiring the old flag. A commission will design a new one without the rebel symbol and with the phrase, “In God We Trust.”

The lone design will be on the Nov. 3 ballot. If voters accept it, that will become the new flag. If they reject it, the commission will draw a new design and that will be on the ballot later — still without the old flag as an option.


» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.


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