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BOBBY HARRISON: Rules are made to be broken in the Legislature

BOBBY HARRISON

A key deadline in the Mississippi legislative process occurs next Tuesday.

It is the deadline for a bill to pass out of committee in the originating chamber. For instance, theoretically, for someone  interested in the lottery, if a lottery bill does not pass out of committee in either the House or the Senate on Tuesday, the issue is dead for the 2017 legislative session.

But in the legislative process, which is often as clear as mud, there may be only one steadfast rule – there is a way around most every rule.

Take, for instance, the aforementioned lottery. Last year no bill to enact a lottery survived the deadline day for legislation to be passed out of committee in the originating chamber, meaning the issue was dead for the session – right?

Nope. The full House passed a lottery not once but twice last year.

On the floor before the full chamber, House members amended bills dealing with regulating fantasy sports and making changes to bingo regulations to include language to enact a lottery in the state.

Those proposals died later in the process, but for a brief period hope was alive for lottery supporters even though their  bill did no make it out of committee.

Offering amendments to the full chamber on legislation is a method of getting around the committee process. The proposed amendment must be similar to the subject matter of the bill being amendments.  For instance, the argument was that the fantasy sport bill dealt with the state’s gaming laws – like the lottery proposal would.

And, at least in the House, the amendment also has to include the legal code section that is in the bill that is being amended. Generally speaking, the rules on offering amendments are more liberal in the Senate than in the House. That has been the case for a long time and has nothing to do with the current leadership of either chamber.

To further confuse things, and to get around the Tuesday committee deadline, the legislative leadership will on occasion pass out of committee what are known as dummy bills. This is done when legislative leaders want to keep an issue alive, but for whatever reason do not want take up the particulars of the issue at that time.

Instead, they pass out a bill that has all the pertinent legal code sections but says nothing, This allows the leadership later in the process, through amendments, to craft the bill as they see fit to address the issue at hand. Last year legislative leaders kept alive for most of the session dummy bills that could be used to rewrite the Mississippi Adequate Education Program school funding formula and to increase taxes to pay for an enhanced infrastructure program.

They had no agreement at the committee deadline on how to address those issues, but wanted to continue trying as the session progressed, hence, the dummy bills. In the end, the dummy bills died as the legislative leaders could not agree on plans to incorporate into the legislation.

The same could occur this session as efforts to rewrite the Adequate Education Program and to pay for a road and bridge program persist, though, it is not clear that the legislative leaders are ready to unveil the particulars of those plans.

Of course, if all options are exhausted and all deadlines missed, legislative leaders can suspend the rules through a two-thirds vote of each chamber and revive any issue.

Former, House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, used to give his sly grin, and exclaim in his Northeast Mississippi hill country accent, that “in the Legislature if you have a two-thirds majority you can do anything you want.”

That’s the legislative process. There is nearly always another option.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol correspondent. Readers can contact him at (601) 946-9939.

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