JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit that questions the governor's power to make midyear state budget cuts.
Justices gave no indication of when or how they would rule, though they asked several questions of an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center filed the suit in 2017 on behalf of two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. John Horhn of Jackson and Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens.
The suit argues that the state constitution gives legislators the power to set budgets. It also says a law dealing with the governor making midyear cuts violates the separation of powers between legislative and executive branches.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant cut more than $171 million from the roughly $6 billion state budget between July 2016 and May 2017 because tax collections fell short of expectations. The cuts included about $20 million to schools.
Mississippi, like many states, is required to maintain a balanced budget. Bryant has called the lawsuit "ridiculous" and said it is politically motivated.
Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise ruled against the legislators soon after the lawsuit was filed, and they appealed to the Supreme Court.
During oral arguments Wednesday, Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Will Bardwell asked justices to strike down a law dealing with the executive branch's role in midyear budget cuts. The law was written after the state Supreme Court ruled in another separation-of-powers case in the 1980s that legislators were encroaching on executive branch duties by serving on some boards and commissions.
Bardwell argued that setting budgets is a "core" power of the legislative branch.
"Core powers can never be handed over to another branch of government," Bardwell said.
Arguing on behalf of the governor, special assistant attorney general Krissy Nobile asked justices to uphold the chancery judge's ruling. Nobile said legislators have the power to set the maximum amount of money agencies may spend, but the executive branch has the power to manage budgets, including making cuts if revenue falls short.
Nobile also said agencies are not required to spend all the money in a budget.
"It is not a command to spend. It is an authorization to spend," she said of appropriations decisions made by lawmakers.