As Ronald Reagan would say, “There you go again,” Bill Denny.
Denny, an 83-year-old Republican House member from Jackson, once again has thrown a monkey wrench into the state legislative machinery, killing a worthwhile new law – then walking off with a “don’t blame me” shrug.
In the past Denny has gummed up the works having to do with voting. This time it’s a more serious legislative matter of saving lives.
Using a rare parliamentary trap in the final minutes of the 2014 Legislature the night of April 2, Denny derailed enactment of a major highway safety law barring motorists from texting while driving, similar to laws in 43 states. Gov. Phil Bryant was set to sign it as part of his package to clamp down on highway deaths.
Several days before, the House-Senate conference version of the texting measure won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was believed to be heading to the governor. Lawmakers knew the sine die (without date) adjournment of the 90-day session fixed by joint rules came on Sunday, April 6, so by custom, both chambers would stop all floor action four days before and head for home. In fact, senators had already said their goodbyes and left the Capitol building, leaving an itchy-footed bare majority of House members to clear the calendar.
Many House members had packed up and headed home that night when all floor action would end for the session. Denny, with 26 years of legislative experience, knew what rules could entrap unwary colleagues and skewer bills he targeted. Surprisingly (so it seemed) Speaker Philip Gunn recognized Denny to make a motion, not inquiring that it was a motion to reconsider the bill’s previous passage. Rep. Robert Johnson, III, D-Natchez, the Transportation Committee chairman, stoutly denied Denny’s claim that bill handlers had not made clear it applied to all drivers, not just teenagers. Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, considered one of the ablest legislative veterans agreed with Johnson, “every one knew what the bill did…it’s right in the bill’s text.”
A reconsideration motion can be lethal, especially on the final day of a session when any bill left on the calendar under such a motion dies with lawmakers’ departure. Ordinarily, a reconsideration motion can’t be disposed of adversely the same day it is made. However, a century-old constitutional provision suspends that rule on the last session day. Though both chambers considered April 2 the final day, officially sine die wasn’t until April 6. That dilemma led to a muddled debate that found Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, a black caucus leader, making the spurious argument the bill could invite racial profiling.
Out of the chaos, a voice vote found the “nos” against tabling Denny’s motion drowning out the ayes. Thus died the anti-texting/driving law. Afterward, Denny denied to Clarion-Ledger reporter Geoff Pender that he was trying to kill the bill, adding he was “shocked,” when it was neatly buried. Some of the blame for the bill’s death must be attributed to Speaker Gunn and Rep. Blackmon.
Denny’s record of gumming up much-needed legislation goes back to the 1990s when he threw a roadblock into the state’s compliance with the “motor voter” law passed by Congress. To encourage voter registration, the measure provided a route for residents to register at the same time they get a driver’s license. The state could qualify for federal assistance by enacting a simple compliance act. Good old Bill – then chairman (yes, Elections Committee chairman, appointed by Democratic Speaker Tim Ford) – mucked up the compliance act so that it failed to get federal acceptance until lawsuits cost the state thousands of dollars.
Then, in 2001, when the George W. Bush Administration responded to the ballot outrages of the 2000 presidential election, by making thousands of dollars available to states to junk their antiquated voting machines and computerize their voter lists, Denny put a sticking point in Mississippi’s compliance act. Denny’s insistence on a Voter ID being stuck in the state’s compliance act left hanging $34 million slated to Mississippi to modernize its voting system.
The state finally got its money when Secretary of State Eric Clark worked out a compromise measure that neutralized Denny’s Voter ID gambit.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.