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Common Cause acting for the public good

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Jan. 22, 2001
With a new agenda covering some old problems, Common Cause/Mississippi's chairman thinks progress is possible.
Dick Johnson told The Meridian Star editorial board his organization  some 300 to 400 strong in Mississippi is working on campaign finance reform, forcing state agencies to publish their rules, and encouraging legislative conference committees to open their process to the public.
A professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities, Johnson came to Mississippi in 1965 to teach at Tougaloo College because he heard it was a good school and was involved in the civil rights movement, to which he was committed.
Today, he continues his "watchdog" work through Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizens group created in 1970.
Run by volunteers, Common Cause/Mississippi employs a lobbyist during legislative sessions.
The lobbyist is working to get a bill passed in state Legislature now. Called the Administrative Procedures Act, the 100-page act introduced in the House would require all state agencies such as health, commerce, taxation, housing and licensing agencies to make their rules, regulations and procedures available and convenient for the public's scrutiny and use. It also would require they develop them if they don't have them. Johnson said the act would make our government more "accountable, fair and more easily understood."
He said someone applying for a particular license, for example, might go to an agency, get a list of what he needs to do, comply with it, go back to the agency for the next step and find someone has interpreted the procedure differently. The person must then start over.
Johnson said the issue needs publicity, because other than that of the Secretary of State and the League of Women Voters, Common Cause has had no pledge of support. He said he anticipates at least some public apathy.
Their opposition is from many of the agencies the act would affect. Johnson said he attributes their opposition to "natural human inertia against change," fear of the unknown and fear of conformity. The act met opposition when it was introduced last year.
Common Cause also backs open conference committees.
One of its major issues for a number of years has been campaign financing reform.
When U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., announced his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill two weeks ago, Common Cause members may have felt new hope.
Having failed once in the U.S. Senate because of legislators' inability to gain the 60 votes required to break a filibuster led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., the bill has been reintroduced and has Senate support.
He said an increase in voter apathy might reflect the people's loss of confidence in their legislators ability and willingness  to hear them.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.