A Hinds County Chancery Court judge has ruled that Gov. Tate Reeves’ partial veto of a COVID-19 relief bill, which included $2 million for the closed North Oak Regional Medical Center in Senatobia, is unconstitutional.
Hinds County Chancellor Tiffany Grove made her decision Monday, Oct. 5 and sided with House Speaker Philip Gunn and Speaker Pro Tem Jason White who filed a lawsuit after the governor’s veto in August.
Reeves vetoed $2 million lawmakers directed to the shuttered North Oak Regional Medical Center in Senatobia and $6 million earmarked to the MAGnet Community Health Center to study and try to address health disparities, such as combating the high impact COVID-19 has inflicted on the African American community. The spending was part of a $130 million bill directing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to Mississippi health care and hospitals.
North Oak permanently closed in the spring of 2019 after previous owners restructured the Senatobia facility and made several attempts to keep it open.
State Representative Trey Lamar of Senatobia, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told the Tate Record in July the money was not designated to go to the current owners of the hospital. He said it would be used by the Tate County Board of Supervisors to assist a new hospital operator at the current location on Norfleet Drive in Senatobia.
If the hospital wasn’t reopened or a memorandum of understanding for a new purchaser wasn’t in place by Oct. 1, the money was to be transferred to the fund used to reimburse hospitals statewide for their COVID-19 related expenses.
The governor previously stated because it was closed, North Oak had not provided care to COVID-19 patients.
Reeves said he vetoed “questionable spending” earmarks by the Legislature in the bill and said it was an attempt to “funnel money to friends with zero accountability,” and a power grab by the Legislature. Gunn said Reeves was overstepping his constitutional authority and that the Legislature has authority over spending, not the governor.
Chancellor Grove in her decision Oct. 5 said, “according to the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 and almost years of case law interpreting our state Constitution, Gov. Reeves’ partial veto was unconstitutional.”
Reeves filed a notice of appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court later that same day in Hinds County Chancery Court.
Reeves’ spokesperson Parker Briden said the ruling was “not a surprise" and that “one Hinds County judge" was never going to decide the outcome of the case. “The Governor has always publicly said that this case will end up before the state Supreme Court,” Briden said in a statement.
Chancellor Grove said based on other Supreme Court decisions, the partial veto authority granted to the governor by the state Constitution only could be used to veto a total sum of money within an appropriations bill and not the conditions on how the money was being spent.
The Legislature appropriated $91.9 million to the Mississippi Department of Health to provide funds to hospitals and other health care providers for their COVID-19 relief efforts. Reeves, the chancellor concluded, did not have the authority to veto the appropriation to some of those health care providers while concurring with providing funds to the other health care providers. She said the governor was trying to veto the conditions of how the money was being spent and multiple past rulings made it clear the governor could not veto conditions of appropriations bills.
Grove’s ruling said the bill was passed in its entirety, though it is not clear whether the health care providers that were the subjects of the partial vetoes will have time to spend the money appropriated by the Legislature. Federal law mandates states spend the money they received from the CARES Act by the end of December.