BOBBY HARRISON: Speaker Gunn flexes House rules clout

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In her final year in office in 2007, then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck wanted to take one more shot at passing what would have been her signature piece of legislation – reducing Mississippi’s outrageously high tax on groceries and offsetting the lost revenue by increasing what was then one of the nation’s lowest taxes on cigarettes.
Then-Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican like Tuck, had vetoed multiple efforts to pass the legislation the previous year.
But in 2007, it was blocked by none other than then-Senate Finance Chair Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point.
Even though Robertson owed his powerful position as Senate Finance chair to Tuck, he refused to bring her legislation up for consideration, thus, ultimately killing the proposal.
At the time, many people urged Tuck to send the proposal to another committee or even to replace Robertson as committee chair. She said, while she wanted the legislation passed, she would not circumvent the process.
During her tenure as a state senator and as lieutenant governor, Tuck can point to many accomplishments, including being one of the primary sponsors of legislation to provide an annual appropriation to counties to help replace substandard rural bridges. But if Tuck had accomplished the feat of reducing or eliminating the nation’s highest state-imposed tax on groceries – in the poorest state in the nation no less – she would have been recognized as passing one of the most significant bills in recent Mississippi history.
In other words, she had a lot riding on the issue. It would have placed her in a unique spot in the state’s history.
Current House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, seems as invested in making Mississippi’s charter school law more powerful as Tuck was in reducing the grocery tax and increasing the cigarette tax.
But he apparently is taking a different tack to accomplish his goal. To borrow a poker phrase, he appears to be all-in on the issue of passing legislation that would allow charter schools, which do not have to adhere to all the rules and regulations of traditional public schools, to locate in Mississippi.
Gunn recently has taken the step of replacing a charter school opponent on the Education Committee, Linda Whittington, D-Schlater, with a charter school proponent, Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula. The Education Committee is key. During the 2012 session, charter school legislation died in the House Education Committee by one vote.
Gunn has not said he made the move to try to advance charter school legislation, but it is obvious to most that is what he is trying to accomplish.
In a recent interview, Gunn tried to downplay the move, saying it has been common in the past for speakers to make committee changes during the middle of a four-year term.
He said his predecessor, Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, did it all the time.
Gunn is right in saying that committee changes are made mid-term. But those changes normally are made when vacancies occur or, perhaps, when two members get together and work out a trade in committee assignments, such as a member wanting to be on Transportation and giving up a slot on Judiciary A in return.
Nobody in recent times can remember an instance where the speaker in the middle of a term removed a member from a committee without that member’s consent.
While Whittington has said she is happy to get the slot as vice chair of the Tourism Committee that Gunn gave her in removing her from Education, she has made it clear that she wants to remain on Education and never heard from the speaker before removing her from the Education Committee.
The rules that govern the House – voted on by all the members at the beginning of the term – make it clear that the speaker has the sole authority to make committee assignments in the House within certain parameters that are defined in the rules.
Of course, one of the speaker’s first and most important tasks is to make those committee assignments at the beginning of a four-year term. But the rules do not prohibit the speaker from changing those committee assignments at any point to accommodate his needs. It just is that speakers – at least in the recent past – have not chosen to exercise that immense game-changing power.
Philip Gunn has chosen to use that power in an effort to pass charter school legislation. That at least makes him unique in the recent legislative history of the state and could make him one of the most powerful legislators to hold what already is a powerful post.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.