BILL MINOR: Reform the sessions and stick to the plan

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

JACKSON

The dumbest idea kicked around at the 2014 Legislature has been a proposal to revert back to the horse-and-buggy biennial (every two years) sessions of the Legislature instead of annual sessions.

Obviously no lawmaker backing biennial sessions was around when annual sessions were installed in 1970 after a long, contentious fight. I was, as a reporter.

More than just annual sessions, the constitutional amendment making the change also mandated limited annual sessions – a biggie back then – of 90 calendar days except for 125 days following gubernatorial election years.

There was a very good reason for putting a limit on the length of sessions, a lesson learned from the 1968 regular session. Would you believe that the 1968 session convened Jan. 6 and did not adjourn until Aug. 9? Well it did, setting a record, Mississippi-wise.

If it were not for the staggering length of the 1968 regular biennial session, I doubt the annual session constitutional amendment would have been adopted later that year by voters, since previous attempts to install yearly meetings of lawmakers had failed.

A number of structural reforms to streamline governmental procedures – lawmakers today take them for granted – were initiated as a result of the conversion to annual sessions.

Here’s how the legislative timetable, still in use, came about: Looking ahead to major adjustments that the Legislature had to make in order to comply with new limited-session constitutional provision adopted by voters in November, 1968, lawmakers were wise enough to convene a six-week special session in 1969 to revise their antiquated procedural rules.

A nationally recognized consulting firm was hired to help Mississippians draw up absolute deadlines for introduction of bills, deadlines for the length of time committees can act on bills and report them to the floor, then deadlines for original floor action on reported bills (with separate deadlines for acting on appropriations or revenue bills). Deadlines were then set for action on bills which originated and were passed by the other house, plus the length of time House-Senate conference committees would have to iron out differences in bills passed by the opposite houses. Importantly, this marked the first time both chambers of the Legislature would have to operate under the same set of bill processing deadlines.

Traditionally, the House old guard whose base was centered in the Delta – controlled for decades by powerful Speaker Walter Sillers – opposed annual sessions, above all, limited ones. They knew abandoning unlimited biennial sessions would bring rules and procedural reforms. Its hard to imagine today that black lawmakers – who didn’t even exist then – now occupy most of the Delta seats. Or further that the Legislature would be divided according to party membership.

Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, sponsored the measure to bring back the moss-draped biennial sessions. He has been in the Legislature since 2000 and should know better. Thankfully, his proposal mercifully died in committee.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics for 67 years. Contact him at Ed Inman – edinman@earthlink.net.