Staff and wire
JACKSON – Conference committees, where lawmakers cluster in groups of six to write final drafts of new laws, would be open to the public under a proposal passed last week by the Senate that is being withheld until support can be garnered in the House.
Regular committee meeting times are announced and posted in the clerks’ offices, but conference committees have historically been handled differently.
On rare occasions, they have been open to the public. But on the most controversial matters, conference discussions are usually behind closed doors.
The rule change adopted by the Senate would require all conference committee meetings to be announced and posted.
Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said Monday the open conference committee proposal was held in the Senate instead of being sent to the House for consideration. He said he plans to meet with the House leadership to garner support for the proposal.
He added that the open conference committee proposal does not jeopardize the leadership’s intent to shorten this session of the state Legislature to 97 days. Traditionally, the first session after statewide elections is 125 days. But because of experience in key positions, the leadership has opted to shorten the session to 97 days.
Musgrove said the House already has voted to shorten the session, and the Senate could take up the House proposal anytime. The Senate version of the shorter session also has the open conference committee rule change included in it.
Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, failed to get the notice provision removed from the rule change concerning open conferences. Dearing said his concern was how clerks could be asked to deal daily with dozens and dozens of notices about meetings. He said the process would be slowed to a crawl. Dearing was the only senator to vote against the change.
The Legislature determines meeting policies and when meetings must be open to the public.
Musgrove said opening the conference committees is a step to regaining some confidence from the public.
I know it would work. The House and Senate education committees had open conference committees over the past four years and they seemed to work well,” Musgrove said.
He said the notice provisions could be rewritten to meet objections.
The House must act on the proposal, but there is opposition.
Rep. Tommy Horne, I-Meridian, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he had supported open conference committees in the past but has reservations now.
I think it will cause a quagmire and bog down the legislative process,” Horne said.
Horne said the one group anxious for open conferences are the lobbyists who line these walls.”
House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, said some of the most adamant opponents in the House are committee chairmen, particularly those that handle emotional issues.
He also said numerous committees are meeting at the same time.
The problem that you have is the logistics, how you actually do it,” Ford said. I’m not sure the public is going to be there.”
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau staff writer Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.