Striking a blow for open government
March 11, 2001
The Mississippi Legislature has officially opened the door for media coverage of and public attendance at some of the most secretive sessions in state government conference committee meetings.
The action came after months of sensitive behind-the-scenes negotiations among House and Senate leaders. It is important because major decisions, usually final, are made when House and Senate conferees sit down to talk over legislation that has cleared both houses in different forms.
The exceptions to the new rule are the Appropriations committees. This is unfortunate because of all the legislative committees and the issues they face, no single committee has as much power over the public purse.
Still, progress toward open government has been made. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Tim Ford were instrumental in moving members of their respective chambers toward the new rule. The House proposal, HCR 111, was originally authored by Rep. Tommy Horne, Independent-Meridian, chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Veteran journalists who cover the Legislature know many conference committee sessions are fairly dull and uneventful.
And, then come the exceptions. The ill-fated addition involving legislative retirement in the 2000 session is an example of why open conferences are needed. No reporter was at the meeting where special language was inserted into a conference report giving legislators a very juicy package of benefits available to no one else.
Several days later, after various reporters and talk show hosts learned of the action, people themselves expressed their dissatisfaction. A special legislative session was called and the special package was repealed.
It takes a diligent press to cover every conference committee, especially late in legislative sessions when negotiations extend far into the night. Surprises will always surface. The most important aspect of conference reports is a clear and concise explanation of any significant changes from the bill as passed in public.