JACKSON – In the oath of office legislators take, they say they will read the Mississippi Constitution or have someone read it to them.
I am sure each member does just that.
I am sure each member knows Section 46 of the Mississippi Constitution says a legislator's pay should not be raised or decreased during a session.
Section 47 of the same document says a
legislator “shall not take any fee or reward” on any measure pending in the House or the Senate “under penalty of forfeiting his seat.”
Surely legislators know those two sections because they promised they would read the Constitution or have someone read it to them.
Last week two Republican members of the House – Mark Baker of Brandon and Philip Gunn of Clinton – offered an amendment to a bill that said no money would be appropriated for the current special session until the Legislature adopted a voter identification proposal.
The bill that Baker and Gunn unsuccessfully tried to amend was a bill that essentially would appropriate money to pay the legislators for the special session. Now, there are other ways that legislators can be paid for the special session without the passage of the appropriations bill, but the intent was clear. Approve voter identification to get paid.
In other words, if the amendment had passed, legislators' pay could have in theory been reduced to nothing if they did not pass voter identification. That seems to be in violation of Section 46.
And if the amendment had passed, legislators would be compelled to OK voter identification to get paid. That seems to be a violation of Section 47.
House Speaker Billy McCoy's leadership team allowed Baker and Gunn – two of his biggest critics – to offer the amendment. It was defeated, but it got a surprisingly large number of votes.
Granted, this is a dead issue – for now – since the amendment was defeated. But from a precedence standpoint, this amendment is dangerous because it could impact a future speaker's decision-making.
It is dangerous, not because voter identification could have been passed through this scheme, but it is dangerous because of the chance any issue – voter identification, the cigarette tax, a teacher pay raise – could be passed using this process.
Legislative pay should not be tied to how members vote on a particular issue. Under some circumstances, that would be illegal.
If constituents don't like the way a member votes, they can address that on election day.
From a pure, practical, commonsense position, McCoy's leadership team made a poor ruling in allowing the amendment to be debated.
In some fashion, McCoy should admit that error in judgment because the precedent that was established could impact rulings by speakers long after he is gone.
Bobby Harrison is chief of the Daily Journal's Capitol bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (601) 353-3119.