JACKSON The status of media access to parts of the Mississippi Capitol has been unclear so far this legislative session.
In November 2016, Republican leaders from both houses of the Legislature sent out a letter to members of the media, explaining that they were no longer going to ask for rent for space in the fourth-floor press room.
"Within the past year," the letter, signed by both the Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Burton and Snowden states, "it has come to our attention that some media organizations have been making normal payments, ostensibly for rent, while the majority have not. Frankly, this came as a surprise, as we had not been aware that any rent was tendered or accepted."
House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Lauderdale, says now that the letter was not indicative of an intention to move the press out of their traditional workspace. "We basically decided that we needed to inform those that were paying rent not to pay any and those that aren't that they are not expected to. That's the long and short of it," Snowden told the Jackson Free Press.
Brenda Davis, the capitol's curator, said this morning that the Kenneth Toler Memorial Press Room, named after a Commerical Appeal reporter who covered the Legislature beginning in the late 1920s, was added to the building during the four-year renovation that ended in 1983. It has large, long full-length glass doors and windows, with the entrance listing the names of the media companies that occupied the space for years, some of which have discontinued use of the space over the years. An old United Press International, or UPI, teleprinter machine, now obsolete and symbolic, sits as a reminder of the past residents of the room.
Snowden said the Legislature is not in the leasing business, although the letter did include a possibility of future pricing for the press room.
"Our analysis of market rents reveals that a fair market value monthly rental for comparable space (if such existed) would be between $12 and $17 per square foot. We are not in the business of commercial leasing, indeed, the 4th floor media space is provided to you on a first-come, first-served bases not as an entitlement, but as the Legislature's voluntary accommodation to you to assist you in doing your job. Accordingly, if your organization has been paying rent, then please discontinue doing so," the letter said.
However, Snowden said the space is prime real estate for the always-crowded legislative building. He said that perhaps one day, not anytime soon, there might be a different plan for that space.
"It is in nobody's mind to put the press out. Is it a permanent situation? I don't know. We might find a better situation all the way around," Snowden said, adding that the decision would have to be a joint decision between both chambers.
But now, with Joint Resolution No. 1, a legislator seeks to turn the press room into a commercialized space for the highest bidder, the text of the legislation explains.
"To create a fair environment for all news media to compete to use office space in the New Capitol, to resolve inadequacies in office space for legislators and staff," is the joint resolution's stated purpose. If passed, it would amend the current rules "to require the House Management Committee and the Senate Rules Committee to offer competitive bidding prices to the news media, for purposes of determining whether the news media may lease the office space allocated to the press."
Rep. Robert Foster, R-DeSoto, introduced the joint resolution, stating on Jan. 17 that he wanted to see the space bid out to private media companies, to be fair to all.
"I think that it is only fair that if you are going to allow certain private companies to have office space for their use that you open it up for bidding for any media outlet in the state to put a bid in on that," Foster said. "Otherwise, what's the selection process if there is not some type of transparent process in place?"
Foster said his resolution would allow for the House and Senate to decide how to bid out the press room space to the highest bidder.
"They can set it up how they want to set it up; that's up to the management committees," Foster explained. "But there ought to be a formal process, like everything else in government, transparent. That way everybody has the opportunity to submit a bid."
Layne Bruce, the executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, when first asked about the resolution on Jan. 17, said he would have to consult with his team of lobbyists and attorneys but that the idea of renting out the press room was a "bad penny" that appeared every once in awhile in the state's legislative agenda. He responded later the same day in an email.
"The resolution puts a new spin on this," Bruce wrote. "If it's the intent of the committee or the Legislature to put to bid the right to use the space, that raises a lot of questions as to whom the potential bidders would be other than media. It's also a good question as to whether (the Mississippi Department of Finance & Administration) would be on board with such a plan."
"Obviously, we feel the space is put to good and important use by the press corps representing print, broadcast and digital outlets. There was a period several years ago when a number of organizations gave up regular on-site coverage of the Capitol, but, undeniably, it is a very busy office these days when the Legislature is in session."
Snowden is chairman of the committee the resolution would have to move through. He said he had not heard anything about moving JR 1 forward from his half of the Legislature. Senate Pro Tempore Terry Burton did not return a request for comment by press time.
"There are no discussions ongoing about it right now, as far as I know," Snowden said.
Mac Gordon is a former journalist who covered the Capitol beat for years in the 1990s before becoming the House press information officer, from 1998 until 2009. He said it was the speaker of the House who always stopped past efforts to limit press space there.
That was before Republicans took over control of both houses. "Now this new regime, that's a different story," Gordon said of today's legislative leadership. Gordon said the press room is emblematic of the role of the media in the workings of government.
"It overlooks, obviously, the whole Capitol, and the Legislature, which I think is emblematic of what the press' role up there is: to overlook that process and keep an eye on that process. And that is where they deserve and need to be."
Correction: We've edited the above story to refer to United Press International, rather than United Print International. We apologize for the mistake in the original version.
Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at [email protected]. Read more about transparency in government at jfp.ms/sunshine.