BOBBY HARRISON: In the House, the power of the boss continues

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In the words of Pete Townsend as belted out by Roger Daltrey in The Who classic “Won’t get fooled again” – “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
In the early 2000, supporters of changing the civil justice system to provide businesses and health care providers more protection from lawsuits almost raised the roof of the ornate Capitol dome as they sang out time and again “let them vote.”
The them were members of the Mississippi House who were not being allowed to vote on those aforementioned civil justice changes. Those instructions were being directed toward former House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. The legislation providing more lawsuit protection was bottled up in the House Judiciary A Committee, chaired by Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, who had reservations about many of the changes being proposed by the business interests.
They wanted McCoy to force Blackmon to pass the legislation to the full chamber for a vote. Blackmon could have withstood that pressure perhaps for time immemorial. But eventually, the public pressure being directed toward the speaker and many of his supporters was so great that Blackmon did take up and pass legislation out of the Judiciary A Committee.
That legislation led to many changes to the civil justice system, including the monetary caps Mississippi now has on noneconomic and punitive damages.
Jump ahead to the current legislative session and the new boss – House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
Gunn has said many times and repeated this week that there would not be a vote this session on the expansion of Medicaid that is allowed under federal law to cover those – primarily the working poor – earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level – or about $15,000 annually for an individual or $32,000 for a family of four.
“There will be no vote on expansion” on the House floor, Gunn said matter-of-factly recently.
Legislation to reauthorize Medicaid has been killed this session in the fight over whether to expand Medicaid. Gunn was saying any legislation to extend the state-federal health care program for poor children, poor pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly past its June 30 expiration date could not include language that would allow an amendment to be offered to the full House to expand Medicaid
The speaker has that power to block a vote if he is in full charge of his committee chairs, as Gunn apparently is.
Presumably, the speaker uses this power, which is of enormous value to a presiding officer, to prevent the full chamber from passing something he does not support
Blackmon, and to a lesser extent McCoy, did not want the full House to vote on civil justice changes because they knew those changes would pass.
Republicans seem to be speaking with one voice when they say they are opposed to expanding Medicaid because they say the state cannot afford it, even though others say the federal government will pick up the great bulk of the costs. But it does cast some suspicion on that unanimous Republican opposition when the speaker goes to such great lengths to prevent a vote from coming up in the House.
After all, Republicans hold a majority in the House. If all the Republicans are against the expansion, then the speaker could allow the vote, prevail and tell Democrats they got their vote so they should shut up and get about the business of reauthorizing the current, nonexpanded Medicaid program.
Instead, the speaker goes to great lengths to prevent that vote – a vote he presumably would win. From a legislative governance point of view, there is nothing wrong with what the speaker and his committee chairs are doing.
Committee chairs in the Mississippi Legislature have a long history of serving as a kind of gatekeeper, killing legislation they do not like without ever allowing a vote by the full committee, much less the full chamber. That is the legislative process – has been for years.
The way to overcome that process is through public pressure. That is what the business community did to force changes to the civil justice system.
Thus far, Gunn has not felt enough pressure to allow the full chamber to vote on Medicaid expansion
Until supporters of Medicaid expansion can exert that pressure, Gunn sees no need to fight to prove he is right by allowing the full House to vote on Medicaid expansion.
BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’sCapitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call(601) 353-3119..