Friday, January 29, 2016
If legislative committees were sports teams, today would be draft day in the Mississippi House of Representatives. Several team captains renewed their contracts to lead the high-profile committees in the next four years—and Democrats will lead only two of those 40 teams. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, and Deborah Dixon, D-Raymond, are the only Democrats chairing committees. Cockerham will chair the Energy Committee, and Dixon will chair the Youth and Family Affairs Committee.
House Republicans control all other committees. Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, returns as the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, as the chairman of the Education Committee.
Some freshman legislators earned numerous committee appointments. Notably, a third of the House Education Committee is made up of freshman legislators—seven Republicans and four Democrats. Rep. Ashley Henley, R-Southaven, and Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, who were both backed by Empower Mississippi's political arm in the primary election, are on the committee. The Empower PAC, which used its funding to eventually unseat three Republican legislators in the DeSoto County primaries, helped fund most of Henley and Criswell's campaigns. Empower Mississippi advocates for "school choice" and plans to push for changes in Mississippi's charter0school law, as Executive Director Grant Callen has said in previous interviews with the Jackson Free Press.
The House adopted its new rules on Thursday, which created six new committees. The new committees include: Accountability, Drug Policy, Judiciary B (the 50-member committee was split into two), Revenue Expenditure and Technology. The sixth committee, the Performance Based Budgeting Committee, is a nine-person committee. The House speaker appoints that committee's members, and Rep. Toby Barker, R-Hattiesburg, will chair it. The committee is set up to evaluate how efficiently the state spends its money, and Barker says he has been working on the process.
"I think it could be one of the most influential committees in the long term, if we can change the culture," he told the Associated Press.
Other changes to the rules included adding "she" and "her" to places in the rules that previously only denoted "he" or "him."
More significant changes to the House rules, which haven't changed since 2012 until now, include tightening down on public-information access and the media. The new House rules include a section that says employees of the House cannot reveal "the contents or nature of any request for services made by any member of the House except with the written consent of the person making such request." And if they do, they will be terminated immediately.
Additionally, the media accessibility portion of the rules changed to put the Rules Committee in charge of "set(ting) aside space" for members of the press. This contrasts to the old rule, which said the space immediately below the Clerk's desk in the front of the House was to be set aside for media members.
On Thursday, Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, brought the change to the House's attention. "I am concerned what we are doing to our fifth estate with these rule changes," he told Rep. Jason White, R-West, who spoke on behalf of the Rules Committee.
White agreed that the new rule change did not require the House to make (or keep) room for the press inside the House chamber, specifically, and that if the Rules Committee so chooses, media members might lose access to the space in front of the clerk's desk where, currently, major media outlets, including the Jackson Free Press, have a designated space facing the chamber.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.