Politics & Government

Mississippi House fights, but will it be lasting?

JACKSON -- At one point recently as the infamous state House computer reading application blurted out words at a pace no human could pretend to understand, a Rankin County Republican was snapping a photo with his cellphone of a Hinds County African-American Democrat and a Gulf Coast white Republican, both smiling broadly in the well of the chamber.

Throughout the chamber, members could be seen smiling and laughing as the computer reading application went about its business.

Hours earlier, it seemed members were ready to go to war against each other.

The always split personality House is more enigmatic than ever _ members laughing and hugging at one point and frowning and hating at the next.

Since the middle of last week, tensions in the House have been high as Hinds County Democrats demand each bill be read aloud before the final vote -- as is their constitutional right.

"This is something that happens from time to time," said Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who has been involved in most of the heated exchanges. "We continue to try to work together."

The conflict has been played out in the judiciary -- all the way to the Supreme Court -- about how fast the leadership could set the computer application to read the bills. It has played out in the view of the public in the ornate House chamber and behind closed doors.

It has played out in terms of fights over childish issues and over adherence of sacrosanct House rules, which are essential for the operations of the chamber,

At one point, Gunn, to the shock of many, said from the speaker's podium his ruling was final, saying a member could not appeal his ruling to the full membership.

He said he reached that conclusion after consulting with the House legal staff. When asked by veteran Reps. Ed Blackmon of Canton and David Baria of Bay St. Louis what section of the legislative rules he was using to reach that conclusion, he refused to say, simply explaining that was his ruling.

A quick search of the House Journal revealed that in April 2011, a ruling of then-Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was appealed to the full chamber. Gunn was among the minority voting to overturn McCoy's ruling.

"We were hoping the speaker would come back and clear that up," said Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, who has served 37 years in the House . "The final decision always rests with the membership."

Watson said he has seen speakers' rulings appealed to the membership only a handful of times in his long tenure.

No doubt that issue has been part of what has caused an escalation of tensions in the Mississippi House.

At the center of the current divisiveness is passage of legislation to replace the Jackson board that currently governs the Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport with a regional board.

The issue, like many in the legislative process, brought the issue of race to the forefront since the Jackson city government, which controls the airport's governing board is majority black, and it was being usurped to a large extent by white governmental entities. But the issue also was one of the oldest in the Mississippi legislative process with legislators from one county trying to protect their turf from legislators from other counties.

Democrats said Gunn agreed to kill the airport legislation as part of the settlement of tensions that erupted earlier this session. Gunn denies ever making such a promise.

Baria, the Democratic leader, said the conflict and alleged broken promises "have made it much more difficult to work together as trust is such an important factor in conducting the business of the House."

Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen, said he believes the conflict will not cause lasting wounds in the chamber that contains 122 often combustible politicians.

"I still see representatives getting alone as you look around the chamber," Brown said. "You see Republicans and Democrats and different types of members laughing and talking.

"This is just part of the process."