"To say that the process is insulting to members of the legislature is an understatement, but the process is more than insulting to members of the public who are consistently misled and excluded from a secretive game that a few top insiders play."
Photo by Ashton Pittman.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." —Lord Acton
On the last day of the 2019 session, Mississippi lawmakers were stunned to discover school vouchers had appeared in an appropriation bill at the very last minute. Aside from a handful of co-conspirators, no one had any inkling that the $2 million in taxpayer money had been slipped into a bill to fund the Department of Finance and Administration.
Earlier the same day, House Education Chair Richard Bennett presented the conference report on Senate Bill 2770—the teacher pay raise. Under questioning, Bennett repeatedly denied that he was aware of any school-voucher language existing in any measure under consideration. He even allowed that he "had been searching for it." The House believed him, and it now appears that he was deceived, along with the rest of the legislature—save a cabal of insiders privy to the plot.
This situation is a blatant example of the pitfalls of the method by which conference reports are shoved through the process at literally the last few hours of a 90-day session. It is apparent that those who managed the DFA bill did not intend for the sneaky inclusion to be noticed.
There is no other way to explain the fact that Senate Bill 3049 contained this accidentally discovered language than to lay it at the feet of leadership who thought they'd get away with it. They were caught red-handed, but because they have a super-majority, they did it anyway. There were Republican members of the House who joined with Democrats in an attempt to undo the wrong and stop the appropriation from becoming law. Many of them risked arm-twisting, threats and denigration from their own leaders to do so. However, in the end, the powerful speaker of the House was able to twist enough arms to move the necessary votes into his column.
Some would say that legislators should have read the DFA bill before voting. However, as Capitol reporter Bobby Harrison correctly pointed out, "... the DFA appropriations bill was filed at 5 p.m. Thursday and was taken up in the Senate at 5:19 p.m. - the last of more than 100 budget bills dealt with by legislators in the final three days of the session. It was passed at 5:20."
In the House, a similar scenario occurred. However, a list of 70 projects included in the bill and distributed to Senators was not distributed to members of the House. Ultimately, members had mere minutes to read a 21-page bill and no reason to look for education vouchers in the DFA budget.
All state business is conducted at the Capitol in a manner similar to the way Senate Bill 3049 was handled. For instance, while there is a requirement that conference committees (like the one that snuck $2 million dollars for education vouchers into an unrelated appropriations bill) meet in public, they rarely, if ever, do so. When committees conduct their business in the plain light of day, such chicanery can't happen. However, working in the sunshine is not the preferred method of the current lieutenant governor and speaker of the House. As a result, nobody in the legislature has any idea about the state budget until the leadership decides to roll it out in a series of conference reports in the waning hours of the session when there is insufficient time to read them, and the only option is a "yes" or "no" vote.
To say that the process is insulting to members of the legislature is an understatement, but the process is more than insulting to members of the public who are consistently misled and excluded from a secretive game that a few top insiders play. These insiders have created a $30 million slush fund that they split 50/50 between the House and Senate, and use to reward themselves and their chosen few.
The House Speaker even had the audacity to tell the press that the $2 million in hidden voucher money came from "the Senate's money." As if this type of justification isn't bad enough, the speaker had worked hard in the days before the end of the session to convince the public that the legislature doesn't have money of its own because it's all taxpayer money, and the taxpayers just couldn't afford to spend more than $1,500 on a teacher pay raise. Of course, even as those words were passing his lips, he knew that the lieutenant governor was using $2 million in "Senate money" to fund a pet project.
If anything above distresses you, there is something you can do about it. Vote! In the end, people will get the government they vote for. My hope is that enough Mississippi voters will awake to the manner in which their government is being run at their State Capitol and decide to make a change when they go to the polls in November 2019.
Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, is the House minority leader.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Jackson Free Press. The piece has been edited for grammar and style.