Public Can't See Mississippi House Contracts, Panel Says | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Public Can't See Mississippi House Contracts, Panel Says

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi House Management Committee voted Tuesday that representatives can look at contracts made by the body, but said the documents, other than their cost, must otherwise be kept secret from the public.

House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said the vote restates longstanding House policy.

"Contracts have always been confidential," he said.

But his Democratic predecessor, J.P. Compretta of Bay St. Louis, said he couldn't remember ever refusing copies of a House contract to anyone.

"I don't ever recall entering into a contract as pro tem where we would keep the contract where no one could see it or couldn't get copies of it," Compretta said.

Immediately at issue is a contract with EdBuild, a company that's consulting on a possible rewriting of Mississippi's school funding formula. The state is paying $125,000 of the cost, while undisclosed private donors are paying another $125,000.

News organization Mississippi Today had asked House Clerk Andrew Ketchings for the contract, apparently prompting the vote.

Snowden said some representatives have also asked to see the document. Snowden said those members could discuss the terms "if they choose to violate the trust of the body."

Some Management Committee members voted against the change, including Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn. Turner pushed for contracting reforms across state agencies following revelations that former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps pocketed nearly $1.5 million in bribes from prison contractors.

Turner said he felt the need for the policy hadn't been adequately explained. "Every contract I've voted for or against, I wouldn't have any problem with anybody seeing," he said.

When lawmakers enacted Mississippi's public records law in 1983, they exempted themselves from its requirements to provide copies of correspondence, although they can give out records if they choose.

House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans, declined in 2015 to release correspondence regarding a school funding initiative they opposed. This year, they declined general requests from The Associated Press. Gunn wrote to the AP that his emails were his personal property, and should remain so to protect the expectations of confidentiality by House members, citizens and Gunn's employees.

House and Senate committees have voted to make travel records of individual lawmakers open to public inspection.

Senate President Pro Tem Terry Burton, R-Newton, said he would present the same language that the House adopted to the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees contracting in that body. He said that until now, it had been Senate policy that even individual members weren't allowed to examine contracts. Now, if the Rules Committee approves, he said senators will be able to look at a contract, "but not take it with them."

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