By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
Legislators left Jackson last week at the conclusion of their 90-day regular annual session without a basic bit of business taken care of: Reauthorization and funding of the Medicaid health care program.
There was the requisite partisan finger-pointing, which is par for the course these days, but ultimately the stalemate boiled down to Democrats’ reaction to Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn’s use of a time-honored tactic prevalent long before Democrat or Republican meant much at the Capitol.
Gunn sees it as his role to “protect” the membership of the House, that is, to keep them from having to cast politically volatile votes when either the outcome is known ahead of time or the leadership opposes what those clamoring for a vote are seeking.
Minority factions have long sought such votes as a way of getting people on the record on issues – a record that presumably will work to their political advantage later – not only in the Mississippi Legislature but in most other deliberative bodies, including the U.S. Congress. And there’s always the possibility of something unpredictable happening when an issue actually gets on the floor for a vote, and the taken-for-granted outcome suddenly is in doubt.
Democrats didn’t get a debate and vote they wanted on expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law, so they’ve blocked the program’s reauthorization and funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Gunn’s view on the Democrats’ demand was that they didn’t have the votes to win, so why go through a contentious debate and vote?
This paternalistic attitude harkens back to another House Speaker, C.B. “Buddie” Newman, who in 1982 prevented a vote on public kindergartens out of a stated desire to “protect” the House from having to vote on what he called “trash” legislation. A perhaps more compelling reason was that support for that “trash” bill was building, and the outcome was far from certain.
As it turned out, Newman’s heavy-handedness was a turning point that helped ensure eventual passage not only of public kindergartens but of a massive education bill that became known as the Education Reform Act of 1982.
Other House speakers before and since have seen their role as being a protective one for the members, which begs the question: Why should people elected to debate and decide public issues be “protected” from difficult, on-the-record decisions?
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Speaker Gunn did show on one central issue in this session a bit more flexibility than is often the case these days in our polarized legislative bodies. He wanted a broader, more sweeping charter school bill than the Legislature eventually approved. But he gauged the membership and knew what was possible.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Senate wanted more than the House was willing to give. Gunn made the matter a simple choice: Do you want to get something passed, or do want to go down in flames with your purity of purpose intact?
Lawmaking is about compromise and consensus, the speaker preached – a sentiment that used to be self-evident but that has given way to insistence on all-or-nothing in so many circumstances.
Gunn was insistent that the charter school legislation that emerged from House-Senate negotiations could actually pass the House. That meant he and other charter school supporters didn’t get everything they wanted, but they got much more than they would have otherwise. Legislative compromise – what a concept.
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Gunn’s week ended on a sour note when a slim majority on the Senate Education Committee – the vote was 8-7 – kept his nominee, Jackson area businessman Joel Bomgar, off the state Board of Education. Members were concerned, among other reasons, that a man who was to join the statewide public school board was home-schooled and is home-schooling his children.
Gunn should have seen this as a problem. It’s not solely a question of diversity of views, as Bomgar and his defenders claimed. There are plenty of people with strong ideas about how to reform public education who haven’t shunned it in such a visible way. Why not seek them out?
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.