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Lawmakers should embrace transparency, not cloud it

How appropriate. Fate chose the week of the Egg Bowl for legislative leaders to have to wipe lots of egg off their faces.

How silly. House Republican leaders passed a rule, with Senate mimicry pending, to deny media access to the Legislature’s contracts, only to find out they were violating their own law.

How embarrassing. The state’s only statewide Democratic elected official, Attorney General Jim Hood, got to slap the hands of Republican legislative leaders.

How heartening. It was then Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant who championed passage of the Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act in 2008 that the leaders violated. And it was now Gov. Phil Bryant who criticized their attempt at secrecy, “I will say an open government is a better government.”

Thanks Phil for standing tall on the importance of honest, transparent government.

Maybe our legislative leaders learned a lesson from this? Probably not.

Unlike the Governor, but like many good men, they seem to have succumbed to the siren call of power. As we know, power corrupts and breeds rotten fruits like arrogance and secrecy.

Many see evidence of these rotten fruits in our legislative leaders’ behavior since Republicans gained super majorities in the House and Senates.

Take the egg-on-their-faces EdBuild contract. “Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn said the Senate Rules and House Management Committees on Tuesday hired a private, nonprofit firm called EdBuild to examine how the state spends money on K-12 education,” reported the Associated Press in October. “EdBuild is based in New Jersey, and the firm was selected for the $250,000 contract without a bid process, the legislative leaders said.” Incredibly, the no-bid EdBuild contract followed legislative action to tighten up bid laws and contract transparency after the Epps bribery scandal involving prison contracts.

Now, these are the same two leaders who regularly tout government transparency. “Fiscal responsibility and transparency” has been a Reeves clarion call. In his listening tours Gunn regularly promotes “government transparency.”

What arrogance to tout open and honest government but not apply it to the Legislature!

Both Reeves and Gunn refused to make public the EdBuild contract. The House Management Committee then passed a rule making all legislative contracts secret. A similar move in the Senate was pending when the Attorney General slapped their hands.

The EdBuild incident followed legislative leaders’ decision to only use their choice consultant to provide guidance on tax reform, Reeves’ reluctance to appoint members to the investigative PEER committee, Gunn’s moves to undermine members’ constitutional right to have bills read, secret conference committee meetings, arm twisting of party members to vote right or face consequences, and other actions that give rise to concerns about increasing arrogance and autocratic behavior.

Hmmm.

Two of the key indicators of tyranny are secrecy and rules that apply to everyone else, but not to the ones in power.

The EdBuild incident followed legislative leaders’ decision to only use their choice consultant to provide guidance on tax reform, Reeves’ reluctance to appoint members to the investigative PEER committee, Gunn’s moves to undermine members’ constitutional right to have bills read, secret conference committee meetings, arm twisting of party members to vote right or face consequences, and other actions that give rise to concerns about increasing arrogance and autocratic behavior.

It’s not too late for Gunn and Reeves to follow Bryant’s example.

But don’t be too surprised to see a bill adopted next session exempting legislative contracts from the Accountability and Transparency Act.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian. Write him at crawfolk@gmail.com.

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