OPINION: Legislature Needs More Sunlight, New Technology | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

OPINION: Legislature Needs More Sunlight, New Technology

“There are some simple steps the Legislature could take that would bolster trust not only among the lawmakers, but between themselves and the public.”

“There are some simple steps the Legislature could take that would bolster trust not only among the lawmakers, but between themselves and the public.” Photo by Amber Helsel.

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Ashton Pittman

On March 29, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves gaveled out the legislative session as head of the Senate for what will be the last time—unless the governor calls a special session later this year. Unfortunately, Reeves did so with a cloud over his head.

The day before, he and others in his party's leadership secretly slipped $2 million for private-school vouchers into an unrelated funding bill. Lawmakers had already made it clear earlier in the session that they would not support an expansion of the voucher program, so leadership did not tell them about the changes before asking them to vote for it just minutes later. That resulted in an angry backlash from legislators in both parties.

I have paid enough attention to the Legislature in the past to know underhanded tactics are nothing new. As a reporter covering our state's lawmakers for the first time, though, I was still surprised by how brazen the double-crossing could be—especially when mixed in with the bipartisan geniality that so often characterizes lawmakers' interactions with one another.

There are some simple steps the Legislature could take that would bolster trust not only among the lawmakers, but also between themselves and the public.

First, leadership could make sure to give lawmakers ample time to read legislation before asking them to vote on it. Voters expect that their representatives will take the time to read bills before they vote on them, but that is impossible when leadership dumps dozens of bills on them all at once and asks them to vote minutes later.

That same standard should apply to committee meetings, where small groups of legislators review bills and decide whether or not to introduce them to the full House or Senate. It offers them an opportunity to discuss and identify any issues with the bills and to iron out the details. Right now, though, committee members often walk into meetings with no idea which bills their committees will take up.

"(Lawmakers) are constantly caught off guard by legislation they've never seen before but are asked to vote on in minutes," Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, told the Sun Herald in 2018, explaining that the current system allows leadership to "fast-track" bills.

It disadvantages not only committee members, but also journalists, activists and citizens who are trying to follow relevant legislation, making dissent harder and keeping critical eyes away as leadership works to shepherd bills through.

In January, Anderson introduced a resolution that would have required leadership to post the agenda for House committee meetings 24 hours ahead of time. At the time, he told the Sun Herald that he doubted legislators would even consider it. Sure enough, it died in the House Rules committee.

A lawmaking body that believes in open and honest government could take other obvious steps to let in sunlight. While the Legislature does offer constituents the opportunity to watch House and Senate floor proceedings through a webcast feature on its website, the technology is decades old and cumbersome; potential viewers must install additional software such as Windows Media Player to stream a small, noisy feed. When the feed ends, there is no way to play it back, though Mississippi College does archive the recordings online.

While the introduction of that antiquated technology may have been a revelation in the early 2000s, it no longer makes sense to rely on it in a time when anyone can whip out their phone and broadcast live around the world within seconds. The House and Senate could set up Facebook pages and use them to broadcast floor sessions. That would allow constituents the opportunity to speak their mind in real time, and for the automatic archiving of videos.

The introduction of modern live-casting would be a welcome change as we move into the third decade of the millennium next year. Maybe the Legislature could even start using Facebook Live to broadcast public committee hearings. But maybe I'm a little too hopeful.

State reporter Ashton Pittman is from Hattiesburg, Miss. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, where he studied journalism and political science.

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