House Gop Caucus Meetings Could Be Illegal, According To The Ethics Commission

A Mississippi state senator has asked the Mississippi Ethics Commission to investigate whether House Republican Caucus meetings, which are held behind closed doors and are only open to 77 Republicans in the House of Representatives, are in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act. As House and Senate leaders debate over big tax plans, both Republicans and Democrats are paying careful attention to the House Republican Caucus meetings, which have been held on a monthly basis since Philip Gunn became Speaker of the House in 2012.

Mississippi Today reported earlier this week on what goes on behind closed doors in meetings that aren’t open to the public or the press. Backroom sessions are frequently used to discuss and debate major pieces of legislation drafted or supported by Republican leaders, including Gunn. During public committee hearings and on the House floor, members frequently ask few or no questions as a result of their deliberations. Republican members of the caucus have been asked to vote on specific bills in recent years under Gunn’s leadership, according to multiple politicians.

The meetings have never been challenged in court or before the Ethics Commission. However, numerous previous rulings — including a 2017 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling — suggest that the sessions may be illegal because the House Republican Caucus represents far more than a majority of the entire House of Representatives and is debating public policy in secret. On March 4, Sen. Sollie Norwood, a Democrat from Jackson, asked the Ethics Commission for a judgment on whether the House Republican Caucus sessions were in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

On Monday evening, Norwood told Mississippi Today, “The request is aimed to clear up issues about a process that has been at best mishandled.” “This isn’t a partisan matter.” It tries to define the parameters of an open, deliberate process for considering public policy at many levels of government.” If the Ethics Commission rules that the caucus sessions are improper, Gunn’s leadership of the House of Representatives might be permanently altered. House leaders also connect with the whole House Republican Caucus using a mobile app, albeit it is not normally used to discuss legislation behind closed doors.

Several House Republicans informed Mississippi Today that Gunn has been known to use caucus sessions to bully rank-and-file members into supporting proposals that he favors. Many in the Capitol have wondered if the discussions are in violation of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act. The House Republican Caucus, according to Gunn’s staff, is not required to follow the Open Meetings Act since it is not a “public body” as defined by state law. According to Emily Simmons, Gunn’s communications director, “the House Republican Caucus is not a public body under the Open Meetings Act.” Gunn’s chief of staff, Trey Dellinger, echoed the same justification with Mississippi Today.

Senate leaders are divided on the issue. Second-term Republican state Sen. Mike Seymour questioned whether caucus sessions were lawful under the Open Meetings Act when Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann became lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Senate in 2020. Hosemann chose not to call Senate Republican Caucus meetings after consulting with Senate officials, who warned him that the meetings would almost certainly violate the Open Meetings Act. If they believe transparency laws are being broken, anyone can submit a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. However, the commission usually responds quickly to requests from legislators. Norwood’s request for an opinion has been pending for 18 days, and the commission has yet to deliver a decision.

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The governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, and chief justice of the Supreme Court designate an eight-member Ethics Commission for four-year terms. Several members of the commission have ties to the state’s political machine or the people who appointed them. Spencer Ritchie was the executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party for more than two years before being named to the panel by then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in 2018. Erin Lane, a Butler Snow attorney nominated to the panel by now-Gov. Reeves in 2020, is the wife of Colby Lane, a college fraternity brother and campaign donor who is one of Reeves’ closest friends. In 2021, Hosemann will appoint Ben Stone, a Republican donor, and close friend, to the Ethics Commission. Since 1981, every lieutenant governor has reappointed Stone to the commission.

Sean Milner, president of the Mississippi Baptist Children’s Village, is one of Gunn’s two current members of the Ethics Commission. Milner and Gunn have both served as pastors at Clinton’s Morrison Heights Baptist Church. Milner’s participation in the commission’s deliberations on Norwood’s opinion request about Gunn’s private meetings is unclear.

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