Newly elected House Speaker Jason White says he will continue convening private Republican caucus meetings at the Capitol in 2024, effectively giving the supermajority House GOP a chance to formulate and debate policy outside public view.
Republicans hold 79 out of 122 seats in the House, which gives them a supermajority and wide latitude over which laws are passed. The state’s Open Meetings Act states that if a majority of the members of a public body, called a quorum, are gathered in one place, then the meeting is supposed to be open to the public.
But White, a Republican from West, told Mississippi Today that he believes the GOP caucus doesn’t qualify as a public body under the state law.
“I do think y’all’s distinction about it being less than a quorum or more than a quorum — I think that’s a weak out and argument,” White told Mississippi Today.
Those who argue that the meetings should be open say political debate in public bodies should be done in public to promote a healthy democracy. White, though, believes political caucuses should be able to meet in private.
The speaker said if caucus meetings were forced to be open to the public, then it could have a “chilling effect” on honest policy discussions. When asked if other public bodies, such as a city council, experience a chilling effect because of the law, White said it “probably does.”
“They don’t debate things to the extent and to the broad reaches that we do here,” White said of other public bodies. “They strictly deal with regulations that pertain to their city. I think that’s a little different.”
Democratic members also conduct private caucus meetings, but their members do not make up a majority of the House or the Senate. Republicans in the state Senate do not conduct private caucus meetings.
The first closed-door House Republican caucus meeting occurred on Jan. 17. White announced the meeting from the House floor.
The Mississippi Free Press, in March 2022, attempted to attend a House GOP caucus when former Speaker Philip Gunn was the leader of the chamber. Gunn and other leaders told the news outlet they could not attend the meeting.
The MFP filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission over the private meetings. Tom Hood, the commission’s director, recommended that the commission determine the House is a “public body” as defined in law and require the caucus meetings to be open.
But the ethics commissioners, appointed by politicians, voted to disagree with Hood’s recommendation and ruled the private meetings were legal.
The news outlet appealed the ruling to the state court system, which remains pending in Hinds County Chancery Court.
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