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Wyatt Emmerich: State legislature more autocratic under Republicans

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

Since the Republicans replaced the Democrats as the dominant party in Mississippi a lot has changed in our state. The Republicans have been good at cutting but not so good at governing. 

 

A lobbyist friend of mine whom I respect as one of the shrewdest observers of state politics put it this way: The Republicans don't really like government, so they aren't very good at governing. Most people aren't good at things they dislike. 

 

The Democrats, in contrast, weren't very good at cutting and fiscal restraint, but they were better at managing the intricate details of government because they believed in the role of government in bettering society. They delved into the details and were more engaged in the actual functioning of the government. 

 

This is most clearly manifested in a fundamental change in the way our state legislature operates. Everyone I know who watches the state legislature has noticed this change. Under the Democrats, legislative committees had a fundamental role in introducing, debating and proposing new laws and new policies. Under the Republicans, legislative committees have become a rubber stamp. 

 

This was brought home last week at a symposium at the Civil Rights Museum on politics and the press. One of the panels consisted of the key journalists who cover the state legislature full time. Every one of them agreed that the current Republican leadership has gutted the committee system. 

 

Adam Ganucheau, a former Northside Sun reporter who covers the state legislature for the website Mississippi Today, put it this way during the panel discussion: "Here's an example of how this plays out in real life, in real time: One of the cornerstone pieces of legislation this year was a rewrite of the public education funding formula. The House passed a version of that pretty quickly in the first month of the session and then it moved over to the Senate.  

 

"As we were approaching the Senate deadline to take up that bill, my colleagues and I cornered every Republican state senator that we could, 23 in all, and asked them what they had heard about the status of the funding formula bill. Every one of them except one, who was a high ranking senator who is in the room with (lieutenant governor) Reeves often, said, 'I don't know.' Twenty-three Republican senators had no idea what was going to be in this bill. 

 

"When we are talking about just a handful of people making these calls, that does matter. The people Mississippians elect to represent them aren't even aware of what's going to happen until the day before the vote and they are told which way to vote." 

 

Geoff Pender from the Clarion-Ledger was on the panel, he echoed the same sentiment: "They exempt themselves from open records and open meetings laws. They allow us by their grace to view them in committees, not by law. We can't, by law, get records. 

 

"There have been some improvements, in some laws, transparency-wise. But the general operations of the legislature are less transparent than a board of alderman meeting anywhere in the state. If they think those laws are good enough for other public bodies, they should come under them themselves." 

 

What's happened is that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn are using a top-down model of governing. Using their staffs, consisting of young bright politicos, they are presenting legislation as a fait accompli and demanding their underlings vote for it. 

 

There's one big problem with this: These young staffers weren't elected by the people. The legislators were. It is the legislators who should be driving the process, not the staff. Bills should be introduced, discussed and debated in open committee meetings over a lengthy period of time during which issues are addressed and the public is kept informed throughout the debate. This gives the voters a chance to be involved through their elected representatives. It is the way a democracy is supposed to work. 

 

This is a matter of style. The house speaker and the lieutenant governor can punish and reward by their power to appoint committee heads. This power gives them the opportunity to operate in an autocratic manner if they choose to do so. Unfortunately, it seems they have so chosen. 

 

There is yet another factor in this equation. National organizations loaded with cash such as the Koch Brothers Americans for Prosperity (AFP) hold the purse strings for future political ambitions. These outside organizations, rather than the will of Mississippians exercised through their elected representatives, end up shaping public policy in the state. 

 

I don't mean to pick on AFP. That organization helped pass some great legislation. In particular, AFP helped end the noxious practice of throwing poor people in jail when they couldn't afford the never-ending fines cities and states have been using to fund operations. As state funding has diminished, these ever-escalating fines are being used more and more to fund our government. It's the way Republicans raise taxes on the sly. 

 

The point is this: Our leaders should respect the spirit of our democratic process. That means openness and collegiality. Elected representatives should be respected as valuable resources, not minions to be told how to vote. 

 

The legislature needs to get back to its original style of governing. Legislative committees need to regain their power. Ideas and laws need to originate from these committees. The committees need to be the stage for lengthy, vociferous, open debate. 

 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. George Washington warned us about the dangers of political parties in his farewell address. We have gone from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state. A better model would be two centrist parties that could compete against each other for the approval of the voters. That would better achieve the goals of a representative democracy. 

 

Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] 

 

 

 

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