BILL MINOR: Gunn’s action: Heavy-handed power

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Hogwash. Speaker Phillip Gunn’s summary removal of Democratic Rep. Linda Whittington from the House Education Committee to replace her with a Republican was not political business as usual. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know enough about Mississippi’s legislative history.
Never in my six decades of closely following state legislative history have I seen such heavy-handed use of power by a House Speaker. Old timers who have served in the Legislature say the same. What especially stinks about the Whittington affair is that she was neither a committee chairman or vice-chairman. Only they, historically, can hold hostage particular pieces of legislation.
Gunn’s motivation to dump Whittington from Education was she voted against the controversial charter school bill some other top Republicans besides Gunn keenly want passed. She was a down-in-the-ranks member of 31-member committee. Committee chairs – appointed by Speakers – do have life/death control over bills referred to their committee. There have been occasions when a vice-committee chair sits on a bill, but the chairman can yank it from him and send it elsewhere. On a Monday morning talk radio show, Gunn admitted he deliberatively stacked the committee with a Republican majority. Now the question is: are these greenhorn GOPers able to govern?
More about the charter school scheme in a moment. First, how come in speculation surrounding the Education shakeup, nobody talks about Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson) the committee’s chairman the previous seven years (and five more as member). Brown knows more about public education and complexities of its funding than anyone else in the Legislature. His credentials are outstanding: State budget officer in the mid-1990s, a CPA and a nationally recognized investment fund manager. No matter how valuable Brown could be had Gunn appointed him to the Education committee, if not its chair, he was dumped entirely from the committee and given piddling other assignments.
It’s no wonder charter schools are championed by Republicans, whose mantra has been privatizing government functions wherever they can. They don’t think government can run anything (try telling that to Sandy-stricken New Yorkers and Jersyites.)
Adding charter schools – a new, untried layer on top of this poor state’s valiant effort to provide quality public education for 480,000 young citizens – is a scheme fraught with a dangerous downside of funneling scarce tax money earmarked for education into the hands of private companies. Of note: 50 school districts which so far have filed copies of their 2013 budgets with the Department of Education, 20 reported they must raise local school taxes in January to balance their budgets. (The feel-good trick of legislative anti-taxers: Pass needed tax hikes down to the next level.)
There was one outrageous legislative episode in the late 1990s when I advocated the House speaker removing a committee chairman that he appointed. Republican Rep. Bill Denny of Jackson, had been named chair of the House Elections Committee by then-Speaker Tim Ford of Tupelo, a Democrat. Congress enacted the so-called “Motor Voter” law that authorized states in 1995 to enact legislation providing for voter registration by citizens when they obtain a driver license or apply for a public welfare benefit.
Denny blocked Mississippi’s compliance legislation for several years and then finally allowed passage of a bill which provided for “dual” voter registration. Those who registered by motor voter could only vote in federal elections. It drove circuit clerks wild to maintain two separate registration books. All the while, Mississippi was peppered with litigation by voting rights advocates that cost the state many thousands of dollars to defend. A federal district court in 1998 barred the state from enforcing the dual registration madness. Finally after Democrat Ronnie Musgrove became governor in 2000, and Denny had been ousted as committee chair when a new Legislature was seated, full compliance with the federal law was enacted.
Guess what? Denny is back as head of the House Elections committee in the Gunn regime.

Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.