Republicans and Democrats in the Mississippi Legislature are once again at loggerheads, as partisan politics slow work to a crawl. Democrats in House are asking for bills to read aloud as a way to protest a measure that would allow the state to regionalize the Jackson Airport’s Board of Directors. In the Senate, two lawmakers say the legislative process is leaving their constituents without a voice.
It's not normal to read bills on the floor of the House or Senate, but Wednesday was not normal.
To show displeasure with Republican Leadership, Mississippi Democrats requested bills read in full before votes could take place.
The move is a stalling tactic like a filibuster meant to slow down progress.
But why are they doing it? House Minority Leader David Baria of Bay Saint Louis explains.
“Members feel like the Speaker broke a promise he made on the Jackson Airport Takeover Bill,” explains Baria. “They felt like he promised them that bill would die, and the House bill did die, but now we have a Senate Bill that is almost identical. Members are upset about that, and the only way really to express that, other than directly to the Speaker, which we’ve done, is to have the bills read and try to get some relief from that. That’s what’s going on. Nobody like that, but that is a mechanism that can be used in a democracy, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Across the hall, two Senators didn't protest specific legislation, instead, they felt Democratic voices, in general, were not being heard.
Senators Barbara Blackmon of Canton and Deborah Dawkins of Pass Christian spent the entire day calling for bill readings, roll call votes and motions to reconsider.
Dawkins, a 17-year veteran of the Senate, believes it’s her duty to stand up for her constituents.
"I think it’s my responsibility,” Dawkins says. “This is a representative democracy, and I am supposed to do what is in the interest of my people. If you can’t ask the questions in committee and you can’t ask them on the floor, how am I supposed to know what’s in those bills? I’m not supposed to find it out. Well, I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
Democrats also complained about the speed of bill readings. Remember that first soundbite?
It led to a heated exchange between Senator Blackmon and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves.
“Senator Blackmon the rules say the bill has to be read, the bill was read,” says Reeves. “The motion is the we do adopt by use of the morning roll call.”
“Mr. President, you said that you all were trying something out and it was not tried out,” argued Blackmon.
“Senator Blackmon, you are not recognized.”
In the House, the speed-reading led to one Representative filing a temporary restraining order against Speaker Philip Gunn. The order claims bills were read "so quickly that no human ear nor mind can comprehend the words."
Gunn later called the order a stunt.
But speaking on a point of personal privilege of the floor, Representative Hines told the Speaker he was being discourteous to others.
“Some of us cannot hear clearly, and sometimes they would like to hear what is being said and what is being read clearly,” Hines says. “For you not to be able to do that is disrespectful to those who have a disability.”
Republicans are trying to work around the situation. Representative Gary Chism of Columbus tried to move things along by refusing to yield for questions during debate. He says the House only has time to do one or the other.
“You can either have a debate, a discussion and answer questions or you can just read the bill,” Chism says. “These were simple bills, and I’m sure they could have asked good on-point questions, but if you’re going to read the bill, I just didn’t think I needed to help them.”
Yet, Senator Michael Watson of Pascagoula doesn’t believe yesterday’s actions were all bad.
“I prefer that if we’re going to have a fight, let’s have it over something with substance that’s over something we really want to debate,” Watson says. For me, I’m a limited government kind of guy, the more bills that die, I’m fine with that.”
In all, lawmakers were able to pass about 20 bills in the House and around 50 in the Senate. Most of the bills were routine and non-controversial. Both calendars still have about 100 bills each, and they need to approval by next Wednesday or they die.