In the controversial December rulingThe Mississippi Ethics Commission said the Legislature is not covered by the state’s open meetings law.
But a new Senate bill before the Committee on Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency clarifies that the Legislature is covered by the open meetings law.
“I just think you have to be transparent,” said freshman Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Brookhaven, who filed Senate Bill 2667. “…I think you should be transparent.”
The bill is intended to “clearly subordinate the legislative power to the provisions of the law on open meetings.”
The Ethics Commission ruled in a 5-3 vote in December that the state Legislature was exempt from open session. The ruling caused consternation because the law does not say anywhere that the legislature is exempt, even though it lists organizations exempt from the law, such as law enforcement agencies and juries. The law further states that all decision-making bodies must meet in public.
The problem arose in connection with an ethics complaint filed Mississippi Free Press saying House Speaker Philip Gunn violated the open meetings law, where the Republican caucus, which includes 75 of the 122 members of the House, regularly meets behind closed doors. The Mississippi Constitution provides that a majority of the House or Senate shall constitute a quorum, or a sufficient number of members to conduct business. In addition, the constitution requires that the legislature meet in public.
Mississippi Today documented, based on multiple accounts, that the House Republican caucus often discusses policy and legislation in closed-door meetings. When other government bodies met behind closed doors to discuss political issues, the courts saw it as a violation of the open meetings law.
At one point, Senate Republicans also considered holding regular caucus meetings, but decided not to, arguing that such meetings would violate the open meetings law.
Barrett said he would not comment on whether he believes the Ethics Commission made the right decision. He also said that he does not form his opinion about the recent decision of the House of Representatives of the Republican Assembly.
But if his bill becomes law, it is expected to stop the House from holding such meetings. Republicans in the House of Representatives continued the sessions of this session. Multiple sources told Mississippi Today that hours before the House recently passed and passed the legislation a ban on gender-affirming surgery and drugs for Mississippians under the age of 18, the bill was debated behind closed doors in the House Republican Caucus.
Barrett’s bill has 19 — mostly Republican — co-sponsors in the 52-member Senate. If the bill does pass the Senate, it must be approved by House leadership to be considered in that chamber.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Josh Harkins, R-Brandon, also filed legislation that would include the entire open meetings law. While he did not make any changes to the bill, it would allow him and other lawmakers to amend the law through the amendment process during the 2023 session.
Barrett’s bill would also allow those who file a complaint alleging an organization violates the open meetings law to bypass the Ethics Commission and go straight to the Chancery Court for a ruling.
Decisions of the Ethics Commission can already be appealed in the Chancery Court.
Help inform our legislative coverage.
Please take a few minutes to answer these questions.