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Analysis: Legislative transparency a matter of perspective

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

A Republican leader of the Mississippi House says the Legislature operates more transparently now than ever. But a longtime Democratic senator says the Legislature falls short of even its own past practices of conducting public business out in the open.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden of Meridian and Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory presented contrasting views last week at a forum sponsored by the Capitol press corps and Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government.

Snowden was elected to the House in 1999. He said when he first arrived at the Capitol, the only way to read a bill was to fetch a paper copy. Now, he said, bills are posted online, and amendments that are offered during House or Senate debates often appear online within minutes. The floor debates themselves are available live on the legislative website .

“It’s really, from my view, a much more open process than it’s ever been,” Snowden said.

Bryan was first elected to the Senate in 1983, and served about the first half of his Capitol career in the majority party when Democrats controlled the Legislature. Republicans gained control of the Senate before the House, and they have held a majority in both chambers since the 2011 election.

Bryan said that during a special session in late August, too little time was spent debating important details of bills, including one authorizing a state lottery.

Final versions of bills are supposed to be negotiated by six people — three from the House and three from the Senate who are appointed to a conference committee. In the special session, House and Senate leaders negotiated privately on the lottery bill for hours before House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves named conferees.

“There’s certainly nothing wrong with House members talking to Senate members whenever,” Snowden said.

Bryan said he remembers in the 1990s, when Democrat Billy McCoy of Rienzi was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and Democrat Bill Minor of Holly Springs was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the two men negotiated the final version of a bond bill in a “room full of people — legislators, lobbyists, reporters, hangers-on.”

“Nowadays, in violation of joint (legislative) rules, they don’t even make a pretense of having public conference committees,” Bryan said.

Snowden said open conference committees are not always useful. He pointed to a 2002 special session that lasted nearly three months. Then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, asked lawmakers to limit lawsuit awards, but talks bogged down amid lobbying from business and medical groups who wanted the changes and trial lawyers who opposed them.

“There were plenty of conference meetings and nothing happened because people weren’t talking to each other in leadership,” Snowden said.

One key example of public accountability is changing: The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is holding only a single day of hearings this month to question a few state agency leaders about spending requests for the year that begins next July. The committee used to conduct several days of budget hearings each September.

The two Appropriations Committee chairmen — Republican John Read of Gautier in the House and Republican Eugene “Buck” Clarke in the Senate — say they often meet privately with agency leaders. That gives them information they need, but the public loses the benefit of watching questions being asked.

On transparency, it’s always worth remembering that the Mississippi Legislature exempts itself from the state Open Meetings and Public Records laws that city councils, school boards, and county boards of supervisors are expected to follow.

» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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