The purposefully broken lawmaking process in Jackson 

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The purposefully broken lawmaking process in Jackson 

Note: This analysis was first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to legislative analyses and up-to-date information about what’s happening under the Capitol dome.

Think back to grade school and Mississippi civics lessons about our representative form of government. The steps of passing laws at the level are simple, uniform and designed to give voters — not the representatives they elect — all the power:

  1. Voters of all backgrounds and viewpoints in every area of the state elect lawmakers to represent their interests in Jackson.
  1. Those lawmakers join their colleagues at the Capitol once a year to partake in a very detailed lawmaking and budgeting process designed to give everyone an equal shot at passing or debating bills.
  1. That lawmaking process is completely open to the public, ensuring complete transparency and that those representatives are, indeed, representing the public’s interests — that nothing untoward is happening behind closed doors.
  1. Bills are passed into law based on a majority vote (or three-fifths vote for spending bills), ensuring that at least a majority of people across Mississippi have a true representative say in the lawmaking process.

What a great way to do the public’s business, right? Unfortunately, in Mississippi, this civics lesson is nothing more than a farce — a bright-eyed fantasy about how things perhaps should work. Many understand how broken the legislative process has become in Washington, but it’s arguably worse in Jackson.

The reality is that it’s never worked the way we’ve been taught. And a progressively more broken system of lawmaking has been implemented over the past 12 years by Republican legislative leaders who, with sweeping rules changes and unchecked power grabs, have created the grandest illusion in state : that our old civics lesson is reality.

Here’s how lawmaking really works inside your state Capitol:

  1. Voters in every area of the state do elect lawmakers, but the districts are carefully drawn by Republican leaders every 10 years to ensure that only Republican voters’ beliefs are represented at the Capitol — that a GOP supermajority (three-fifths of both the House and Senate) have votes to pass any bill they want and can maintain complete power in Jackson. This doesn’t just suppress the ideals of Democrats across the state, but it also hurts Republicans who represent more moderate or more conservative districts than the GOP establishment leadership.
  1. The specific lawmaking process still on the books has been completely tossed aside for a newer, unwritten process. Are you a Democratic lawmaker? You’re completely powerless inside the Capitol and your views mean nothing. Are you a Republican representing a more moderate district with voters who disagree with a lot of things the most conservative party leaders believe? You’re even more powerless at the Capitol. Major pieces of legislation typically aren’t unveiled until the eleventh hour, and Republican leaders use hard deadlines to give rank-and-file members of both parties virtually no time to read or understand what they’re voting on. If they don’t vote with leadership, the leadership will punish them by further shutting them out of the process.
  1. The brunt of the lawmaking process is nearly exclusively conducted behind closed doors, meaning voters are usually unaware of what business their elected representatives are truly conducting. If anyone in the general public wants to know what ideas or proposed legislation their city council members, their mayor or even their state governor is writing or sharing with colleagues, they can request and receive those records. But not state lawmakers, who have long exempted themselves from their own public records laws. What’s worse, a recent Ethics Commission opinion says that lawmakers are not bound to the Open Meetings Act, a state law that mandates elected officials conduct public business in public. House Republicans have, for years, unabashedly met behind closed doors to debate and even vote on major legislation that they’re then expected to pass in public a few minutes later. Senate leaders, too, have gotten used to operating in secrecy in recent years, particularly during the conference committee process late in the session when the most important bills are debated by just six lawmakers behind closed doors.
  1. Bills are, indeed, passed into law based on a majority vote (or three-fifths vote for spending bills), but Republicans in both chambers are often expected to vote “yea” even if they don’t know what is in the bills. Typically the biggest, most impactful bills are rushed — stuffed down the throats of rank-and-file lawmakers of both parties who were purposefully kept out of the writing and debating process. In effect, even the majority of represented by that Republican majority could not get adequate answers about bills from their representatives if they tried. And if they’re really being honest, many Republican lawmakers would admit after voting bills into law that they didn’t agree with the bill’s premise or wish they would have had more time to better understand the effects.

Don’t just take it from me. Take it from a two-term Republican lawmaker who recently announced his retirement and has decided to get honest with his constituents about what the Mississippi has become.

In a harrowing Jan. 10 email to his constituents, GOP state Rep. Dana Criswell wholly concedes that the secretive process from House Republican leadership has stripped power from the public. The purpose of Criswell’s email, in fact, is to ask the public to help him and his Republican colleagues read bills because they aren’t given enough time. Seriously. Here’s how his email begins:

A common complaint among legislators is a lack of time to actually read bills. The tactic used by leadership in nearly every legislative body is to overwhelm legislators so they don’t know what is in the bills. This leaves legislators simply following leadership and voting however they are told. One term used in the Mississippi House is “vote bottom right.” If you look at the voting board in the House, you will see “Speaker” at the bottom right. Many legislators simply look at what the Speaker is doing and vote with him.

When faced with over 2,500 bills during the 3 month legislative session, committee chairmen who refuse to provide agendas for bills being considered and a Speaker who regularly suspends the rules and brings up bills for a vote in hours instead of days, legislators are left voting for bills they have never read. Unfortunately, a large majority of legislators just don’t care because they are too busy going to dinner and living the high life off of a lobbyist to spend time reading bills and making informed decisions. But there are a few of us who believe it is our job to be informed and make the best decision possible before casting our vote.

When I first arrived at the Mississippi legislature, I was determined to read bills and know what I was voting for or against. I spent hours every night reading bills that were assigned to my committees only to find out the chairman wasn’t considering any of the bills I had read.

Experience helped me prepare. I learned to eliminate some bills authored by Democrats that were never going to pass and I learned to speed read bills by finding the underlined portions which indicate new language to a code section of law. But none of this solved the problem and completely helped me make informed decisions.

So, I made an agreement with a couple of other legislators to divide the bills among ourselves. We would meet once or twice a week to discuss and inform each other about the bills we had read. While this method helped, we were still behind and found it impossible to read everything we needed to read. I’m pretty sure one of us made a statement similar to, “Reading these bills is a full-time job.”

– GOP Rep. Dana Criswell in a Jan. 10, 2023, email to his constituents.

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, in his first term as president of the Senate, deserves credit with all this. He sees the broken system clearer than anyone. He inherited a Senate in 2020 that had been ruled for the previous eight years by now-Gov. Tate Reeves, who worked alongside current Speaker of the House Philip Gunn to create this more extreme way of doing things.

Since Hosemann took office, though, he’s implemented several changes to increase transparency like live-streaming committee meetings, halting closed door Senate Republican Caucus meetings that had become commonplace under Reeves’ leadership, and asking Senate committee chairs to publicly post their agendas at least 24 hours in advance. Hosemann has publicly floated reforms to the rushed budgeting process, the absolute epitome of the backwards process laid out above, when no more than six Republican lawmakers decide how to appropriate $7 billion in one single weekend every year.

Despite Hosemann’s best efforts, Senate leaders are still operating in the secretive system that Reeves helped build and are still having to contend with Gunn and his House leaders’ open flaunting of the old civics lesson.

Democrats, of course, have no voice whatsoever in the lawmaking process. For decades now, they’ve decried this system and have filed numerous bills to improve legislative workflow and transparency. But proof positive of their complete lack of influence: In the past 12 legislative sessions, none of those bills have even been considered or debated in Republican-led committees, let alone passed into law.

The losers of this broken system, of course, are everyday Mississippians. Because only a handful of Republican lawmakers have all the power, there’s no space for compromise or productive debate of legislation that affects every single resident for generations to come. Because these leaders operate and thrive in secrecy, Mississippians cannot know the true intentions of the ones in power, and there’s no way of knowing which lobbyists or out-of-state interest groups may have direct influence over what gets passed into law.

And, in turn, Mississippians cannot make truly informed decisions at the polls every four years.

So the brokenness continues. And it continues. And it continues. And it continues.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.