GUEST COLUMN: Legislative rules say conference meetings are open. But are they?

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, March 29, 2023

By Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today

House and Senate conferees met for days including through the Easter weekend in 1997 to hammer out an agreement on the landmark Mississippi Adequate Education Program legislation that was ultimately approved by both chambers.

All of those often intense and combustible meetings were open to the members of the media, who were on hand to see Senate negotiator Hob Bryan, D-Amory, storm out of the meeting in response to House proposals he found objectionable. Reporters also were on hand when the conferees, with the exception of then-Senate Appropriations Chair Dick Hall, R-Jackson, signed the compromise on the school funding formula, sending it on to the two chambers that approved it overwhelmingly.

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Joint rule 23A of the Mississippi House and Senate stipulates that “all official meetings of any conference committee on a bill or on a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment shall be open to the public at all times, unless declared an executive session in accordance with the provisions of Section 25-41-7, Mississippi Code of 1972.”

That is the rule now, approved overwhelmingly by members of the House and Senate in 2020. It was not the rule in 1997 when House and Senate negotiators held open conference committee meetings on the MAEP. The House and Senate negotiators just thought it was the right thing to do.

As the 2023 session quickly approaches its scheduled conclusion, there are about 250 bills in conference, meaning on each bill three senators and three House members appointed by the two presiding officers are meeting to work out the differences in the House and Senate versions of the legislation.

Despite the joint rules approved by the House and Senate saying conference committees “shall be open,” many House and Senate members would have a bonafide conniption if a group of reporters or the general public tried to walk in on their conference meeting. Some conference committee meetings might be open on occasion, but not often and not like it used to be.

There was a time in the Legislature when reporters sat in the office of then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant as House and Senate negotiators tried to solve a budget deadlock. Reporters crowded into the office of then-Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Gordon and watched conferees talk about cars and food because they had nothing else to say about the then-ongoing budget impasse.

At one point, Republicans, including now-Speaker Philip Gunn, but at the time the minority leader, complained that the Democratic leadership of Speaker Billy McCoy was not negotiating on the budget in good faith with the Republican leadership of the Senate. McCoy and his budget leaders welcomed members of the House Republican minority to come to the open conference committees, where they could watch the budget negotiations in person.

In fairness to the current leadership, conference committees have never been completely open. The nature of the process makes that virtually impossible. At the end of the session, when conferencing kicks into high gear, a lot is going on and legislative leaders are not necessarily thinking about the importance of transparency, but simply trying to meet constitutionally imposed deadlines.

And often agreements are reached on bills with no formal conference meeting. The two primary conferees — one from the House and one from the Senate — might meet in passing in the halls of the Capitol and hammer out an agreement and ask the other conferees to sign off on the agreement at their convenience.

And truth be known, members of the media and the general public would not be interested in many of those bills.

But there are major pieces of legislation where there would be intense interest.

In the early 1990s, then-House Education Chair McCoy and Senate Education Chair Ronnie Musgrove began holding their conference meetings in the open. There was no rule requiring them to do so. They just looked at it as an effort at transparency and perhaps good government.

The idea of the open conference committees grew, to a large extent, out of their actions. In theory, legislators still embrace the idea of open conference committee meetings in their joint rules, but in reality not so much — at least not so much thus far.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.