The JFP Interview with Joey Fillingane | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview with Joey Fillingane

Photo by Virginia Schreiber

For R.L.'s interview with Steve Holland, click here.

It's Valentine's Day, and everyone seems to be courting Sen. Joey Fillingane. Just two days before Mississippi's Feb. 16 legislation draft deadline, his secretary and gatekeeper has to run interference on an unending parade of lobbyists who all want just a few moments of the state senator's time.

Earlier in the day, Fillingane had filed an anti-abortion "personhood" bill that had Capitol reporters darting in and out to chat with him as well.

If you didn't know he was chairman of the Mississippi Senate Finance Committee, you'd swear the boyish-looking lawmaker belonged on a liberal-arts college's quad serenading coeds with his guitar.

But at age 38, Fillingane, an attorney from Sumrall, is a veteran lawmaker of 13 years who has championed some marquis Republican causes in recent years.

"I'm a very conservative person, and I represent a very conservative area of the state," he said during a late-afternoon meeting in his office.

During last year's session, Fillingane authored an immigration bill that closely mirrored controversial laws in Arizona and Alabama, requiring police to arrest people they suspect are in the United States without proper documentation.

That bill stalled in the House but has re-emerged this year, along with several other items aimed at tamping down the presence of undocumented immigrants.

Fillingane was also behind last fall's successful effort to require voters to show state-issued photo identification at the polls.

Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested the ballot initiative, saying it would suppress minority votes.

After the resounding defeat of the Personhood Initiative in the same election, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the issue would come back at some point during the legislative session.

And the conventional wisdom was that someone with Joey Fillingane's track record was a likely candidate to introduce a personhood bill.

Fillingane, however, is doubtful that the Legislature will tread into personhood's waters this legislative session.

"I don't know that we're quite ready yet to dive off into the whole discussion and debate over proposition 26 that we just recently came off," Fillingane said.

"But I know that people feel very strongly about that issue. Based on the conversations I've had, I don't believe we'll take that up this year."

Let's start with big news this week. There's been a lot of attention on the role of the attorney general and on transparency. You have a couple bills on the subject: the Transparency in Private Attorney Contracts Act and the Sunshine Act. Could you explain how those two bills differ?
Those were two versions of the same bill that I guess got filed a couple years apart from each other. And at the start of this year, before I knew where I would be as far as committee assignments, I went through my old list of filed bills that never became law and re-filed a whole bunch of them. So I think there's not a huge difference between those two versions of the bill, but there are just two bills that deal with the same issue, and that's transparency and sunshine over in the AG's office.

Why is it framed as a transparency issue?
Well the transparency aspect of it comes in right now when there's a reason to go out and hire outside counsel, someone other than your own state attorneys.

The AG's office has absolutely no regulations as to whom they can hire or for what. They just say :"We're not going to use in-house attorneys, we're going to find a law firm and oh, by the way, we're not going to bid that work out. We're going to go pick somebody, and give them the business."
But the Sunshine Act (as proposed) doesn't give agencies direction on how to go about that process, either.

Right now, they have to go through the attorney general's office. So they have that level of regulation already. The AG's office does not. They just go hire whoever they want to.

Do agencies have lump-sum budget authority?
No. I do know that if an agency goes and tries to hire an attorney other than the AG's office, they can hire one, but can't pay them. They have to get sign off from the AG's office before the invoice can be paid. They still control, in essence, who they hire and who they don't hire.

So the argument that it's going to cost the state more money—you don't buy that?
No.

The attorney general says at least $11 million extra, which make sense because private firms charge more than the government for services.
Okaaaay ...

If an agency head isn't a lawyer, they're not going to know how much something costs. It's like when I go to the mechanic, and they tell me I need a new whatever. I don't know any better.
Typically, what you'll find is in 99 percent of the cases, they do use their assigned attorney that is assigned to them by the AG's office for all their in-house stuff.

The only time this issue comes—I mean, they don't want to spend money that they don't really have, that they don't need to be allocating for attorneys' fees. It's only when they and the attorney general's office have a difference of opinion about how the agency should be represented on a particular issue or matter and the AG's office says, "We're not going to represent you in that way."

Well, then should the agency head not have the opportunity to say, "Well, if you won't represent me, then I'll use some of my funds, if I have any to hire someone who will represent the agency the way we feel we should be represented in this matter." That's the only time you have this issue come up. It's certainly not every time that a legal issue arises that they want to run out and hire an attorney. Obviously, when you have one that's provided for you, you're going to use that one.

But only where there is a difference of opinion about how something should be handled do you go outside.

Is some of this gearing up for possible legal challenges to voter ID or any of the immigration stuff that might be coming down the pike, where the attorney general might be involved?
No. If that were the case, why have we been filing this bill for six, seven, eight years? Those are just very recent issues that you're bringing up. So, no.

Switching gears: I hear that about $135 million is needed for maintenance of state buildings. Is that going to be a priority this budget session?
In this economy and given the state's finances, what you'll probably find is that there will be a real serious look at prioritization. Obviously, we don't have the kind of money to go out and fix all the state-owned buildings or even the leased buildings.

So you'll just bring in buckets if it starts pouring down in here?
What we'll do is we have the Department of Finance and Administration—who goes out and monitors the status of all the buildings—and they would bring us a report saying, "These are your most severe needs dealing with state-owned buildings. These are things that need to be done but with a little maintenance can be avoided for another year, and these are our wish list if we had all the money in the world, we'd be able to fix all these things." It's just like your budget at your house. If you've got an appliance that goes out, then the decision is: Do I have the money to replace the appliance, or do I need to spend a fraction of that cost to fix it and take it to the appliance-repair shop?

It depends on if it's my coffeemaker.
See, it just depends on the priority you give it.

Why is there so much hostility to the idea of charging taxes on purchases made online, given what Gov. Barbour said when he left office—that it wouldn't be a tax increase? We'd be collecting taxes already owed to the state.
We're waiting on the federal government, obviously, to change the policy that would allow states (to collect Internet sales taxes).

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, for example, has said he's not amenable to raising peoples' taxes.
I haven't talked with him about that particular issue. All I know is right now it's sort of a moot point because we have so many issues that are facing us that we can deal with. Why go out and look for issues that are not ripe yet? It's not come (to) me because the federal government has not yet changed its policy allowing states to open up and do that. If they don't change their policy, there's nothing we can do about it anyway.

There's that famous story about Barack Obama's political godfather who said, "I'm gonna make me a U.S. senator." A lot of your bills have been red-meat conservative-type issues. Is somebody trying to make something out of you?
I hope not. (laughs) Because I can tell you that those bills that I've filed have not come to me. I've filed them, and they've gone to other committees, some of which I don't even serve on. A lot of my bills have gone to public health and welfare, but I don't sit on that committee.

There's little I can do to control the fate of those bills like any other legislator. There are 52 of us, and we all file as many bills as we want, but the truth is unless you're the chairman of the committee that bill is going to go to, you have very little control over whether it ever sees the light of day or not.

I'm a very conservative person and I represent a very conservative area of the state. I'm just the chairman of finance, and that's enough for me to say grace over now.

Also, I don't try to go behind other committee chairmen and get them to do anything with my bills.

Are these things that are near and dear to Joey Fillingane's heart? Or, are they by request?
This is my 13th year. I've championed certain types of bills—pro-life bills, things of that nature—but the last four years, I was chairman of the Judiciary A Committee. I dealt with a lot of court-related issues. By virtue of being in a certain place, you get certain requests that you wouldn't get otherwise. By and large, the non-finance ones are things that I care personally about.

I'll tell what I heard about you when I first came here—that Joey Fillingane is one of the nicest guys in the Legislature.
I don't know if that's true or not. But I'm not offended.

But on the other hand, I've heard the word "hateful" applied to some of the pro-life stuff, the immigration stuff, the voter ID stuff.
(Winces) I don't worry about perception as much as I worry about the policy, and I believe strongly in the right to life, because I do believe that life does begin at conception. When you terminate that, you're ending one of God's creations prematurely, and if that makes me a hateful person, then I'm willing to take that.

On immigration policy, I'm not the chairman of Judiciary A, so I'm not handling those issues.

But I feel strongly that our borders ought to be recognized, and they ought to be secure, and that people who have broken the law ought to abide by the law. I don't see how that makes a hateful person. And I forget the other issue you brought up.

Just that you're really nice.
Well, I hope that's case. I try to be nice to everyone whether they agree with me or not. But I understand. This is a deliberative body; everyone comes here with their own background and their own upbringing and their life experiences, and I certainly don't claim to be right on everything that I do or every bill that I file. I just bring my own set of beliefs to the table, and I try to advocate for those, and I expect everyone to do the same.

You just don't strike me as a rabid partisan. And I've seen them on both sides.
I try not to be, because I understand that I'm human. I'm not all knowing, I don't get it right all the time. I just know that at the end of the day, I just try to do the best I can, and I think everybody else up here is trying to do the best they can to represent their background and their constituents, and I respect that. We all have to represent who sent us here.

You have a couple immigration bills this year. One prohibits unauthorized aliens from receiving financial aid from state universities or colleges. Is there evidence that this is endemic here?
We've asked that question of some of our colleges and universities, and all they can tell us is that they don't try to figure out if that's happening or not. So there's no reason for them to dig into that, to waste their time trying flesh that out.

Where I come from on that is if we have Mississippi residents who need that financial aid, and they're not getting it because someone who is here illegally is getting it, that's a concern I have.

Does the bill direct colleges and universities to collect this information?
They would have to at that point. If it's illegal for them to receive that assistance, then you would have to put implementation procedures in place.

There are some other immigration bills that aren't yours, and it seems like they all have language to punish the undocumented immigrant. Is there anything that looks at the employers?
For the past couple years, we've been doing E-Verify for employers. And there are penalties if they are hiring illegal workers, and they are not E-Verifying their citizenship and not verifying their legal ability to work here in the state.

So there are penalties for both sides, and I think you have to have a balanced approach. It's not fair just to target one segment and not target the community that is employing undocumented workers. If you're going to be successful, I think you have to have a very balanced approach.

Is Senate Concurrent Resolution 555 (personhood) modeled after Initiative 26?
Basically what 555 is, in my opinion, is a vehicle that if, in fact, the Legislature as a whole is of a mind to try to take up the issue of personhood this year, (they can), and I kind of doubt that. We're not, based on the conversations with colleagues.

But if we were of a mind to, I simply didn't want the deadline to come and go without some kind of legislative vehicle for that conversation to take place under. It's my belief that probably what you'll see this legislative session is smaller bills that deal (with) regulations of abortion providers and clinics—dealing with the qualifications (of) doctors performing those procedures, admitting privileges to hospitals, things like that.

I don't know that we're quite ready yet to dive off into the whole discussion and debate over proposition 26 that we just recently came off. But I know that people feel very strongly about that issue. Based on the conversations I've had, I don't believe we'll take that up this year.

Does taking a piecemeal approach provide some cover for the fact that voters overwhelmingly rejected 26 and are wondering why the Legislature is going there again?
The Legislature hasn't dived into the issue, yet. Filing a bill doesn't equate to diving off into the debate.

Is this something that would go back to the ballot?
(Nods yes)

Is there a waiting period (since Initiative 26 failed in the fall)?
There's not a waiting period, but I think we would all agree that there has to be a lot of questions answered. The reason that the proposition failed last year was not because Mississippi is not a very strongly pro-life state. I think everyone concedes that we are. But there were some legitimate concerns raised about in-vitro fertilization, birth control.

The impact on those items that the language in Prop 26 had—(those questions) have to be answered, and they haven't been answered yet. And I don't know that this is the year to try to bite all that off—probably not. I think there'd probably have to be an education period to answer those kinds of questions and come up with answers to them before you would have that different result.

What are the chances we'll see a Gulf of America bill in the Senate?
I don't know the chances of seeing a bill. But the likelihood of it passing would be very slim.

What did you make of all that?
I think it's very interesting, but I don't necessarily think it's very productive. I think we have some real issues, financial and otherwise, that need our time and attention.

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