Thursday, February 9, 2012

Live Blogging of the battle over HB 122, the so-called "Sunshine Act" *FIGHT OVER; BILL DEAD*

Here we go.  The House is in session, now going through introductions.  Speaker Pro Tempore is acting as Speaker at the moment.

Click here to watch the House in action live.

House is finishing with resolutions, and now HB 122 will hit the floor.  Rep. Mark Baker (R - Brandon), chairman of House Jud A, is speaking on behalf of the bill.  Baker is apologizing for not recognizing Rep. Earle Banks (D - Jackson) in Jud A when Banks was asking to speak.  Baker says it was inadvertent.  Whether or not that is believed probably depends upon political affiliation.

Baker is now giving his explanation of the bill.

He finishes, and Rep. Steve Holland (D - Plantersville) rises to question him on the bill.  Makes a couple of introductions first.  Holland begins with "Gentleman, I really like you...but I want to ask you some questions about how you plan to style your committee."  (Baker has been raked over the coals for how he handled this bill in the committee.) Baker says he sent the bill through his subcommittee: Holland says "Oh, a subcommittee of one.  Those are legal."  Arguments ensue between Holland and Snowden, with Snowden telling Holland not to question Baker on the process the bill took to get through committee.

Baker now defending his refusal to allow Attorney General Jim Hood (D) to address the Judiciary committee as it "considered" HB 122. Holland asks Baker if he consulted the state's chief legal officer (Hood) before pushing a bill that would strip him of his power.  Baker's response? A simple "No."

Several out-of-order introductions made.  Now Rep. Cecil Brown (D - Jackson) rises to question Baker, starts by saying "I want to make this as painless as possible for you and for me."  Brown asks what problem this bill seeks to solve, and says that the bill is new.  Baker says the bill has been around for 4 or 5 years in this form.  (NOT TRUE.)  Brown calls him on it, saying that he'd pulled the bills on this issue from the past sessions and this bill is drastically different.  (He's right.)  Baker "we want public to be able to know about the lawyer contracts and to see them on the website."  THE CONTRACTS ARE ALREADY ON THE AG'S WEBSITE.

Brown: "Tell me why a state agency head should be able to override the Attorney General."

Baker denies that the bill came from ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), saying he drafted it himself. Well, take a look at ALEC's "Private Attorney Retention Sunshine Act".

Brown points out that in the last redistricting lawsuit, the Secretary of State hired outside counsel.  Baker says Hood picked that lawyer for the Secretary of State.  NOT TRUE!  Secretary Hosemann picked the Brunini firm, not Hood.

Brown asks Baker why there is no requirement that the agency head choose a lawyer that has special expertise.  Baker says he just assumes they'll do right.

Brown points out that the money isn't allocated to pay for attorneys for agencies on an hourly basis.  Baker says he figures they'll be conscious of the budgetary constraints.

Brown: "Nothing in here would prohibit an agency head from making a finding and hiring his buddy."  Baker says agency heads won't do that because they're "accountable to the public".  Brown correctly replies that they are not elected by the people, unlike the AG.

Baker gets loudly defensive when Brown pushes him on the problem that the bill does not force agency heads to give notice to the AG when they file suit, but the AG is forced to give notice to agency heads.

Brown: When you go to the AG's website, can you not get all of the outside counsel contracts on there? Baker: Yes.  Don't know if it is all of them.

Brown concludes his questioning by saying he would like to be heard right before the vote on a point of order.  He also asks to be recognized at the appropriate time to speak on the bill.  Snowden says he would consider the point of order, but that the legal staff needs time to research it.  Brown says they will have time to research it.

Now doing more introductions.

Here comes Rep. Bob Evans (D - Monticello).  Asks Baker who can review the determination of an agency head that a conflict exists.  Baker sticks by the assertion that these appointed, non-elected agency heads are "accountable to the public".  Baker then admits there is no way for anyone to review the agency determination.

Evans then asks Baker where the money is going to come from to pay the attorneys.  Baker says "the budget."  Baker admits that the money paid to the attorneys hired by agency heads will be taxpayer money.  (And the GOP is the party of spending less?) Evans points out that there is no money allocated in the current budget to pay for these outside attorneys.

Snowden now tries to limit Evans' questioning.  Says don't ask questions that cover ground already covered.  Evans responds by saying that Baker isn't giving straight answers.  Evans says he'll move on.  Asks Baker why he didn't recognize Hood sitting at the table in the committee meeting.  Baker says there is no pattern or practice of recognizing statewide elected officials to speak at committee meetings.  (Hood asked before the meeting to be heard.)  Snowden is trying to limit Evans again.  Evans was asking a follow-up question about Baker's behavior yesterday.  Evans asks why there is a limit of $100,000 on the contracts that have to be posted on the website.  Baker said it's a negligible number.  Evans then asks whether or not a single law firm who in aggregate signs multiple contracts totaling $1,000,000.00 would have to post those contracts on the website.  Baker says no, but that it won't ever happen. (This is going to bite him in a few years.) Evans points out that if it does, the people of Mississippi won't know it.

Rep. Robert Johnson (D - Natchez) is now questioning Baker.  Johnson is a former Special Assistant Attorney General.  Pointing out that this Republican bill would expand the size of government.  Johnson also pointing out that the term "Sunshine" as has been used throughout politics has referred to open records, open meetings, etc., but here, the bill creates a limitation on open records by hiding contracts less than $100,000.00.  Johnson concludes by saying that he would like to offer amendments at the proper time.

Rep. Bobby Moak (D - Bogue Chitto) is now questioning Baker about the availability of the outside council contracts on the AG's website.  Baker admits they are, but says they want to make sure they stay there.  Moak says he's in agreement with that.

Here's a link to the outside counsel contracts on the AG's website.

Moak continues his questioning by asking if the public should have the right to know if an agency head hires an attorney for $95,000.00.  Baker is sticking by the $100,000.00 limit, so "no."  Moak: Let's say law firm Y decides to go into the state agency representing business.  They go around and get 100 agency heads to hire them for $100,000.00 a year each.  Law firm Y would bring in $10M in taxpayer money without the public even knowing about it.  Don't you think we ought to do away with the $100,000.00 limit?  Baker points to line 188 of the bill, which he says he just recognized.  Says that line 188 would require a docket be kept of all counsel hired by agency heads.  Gives the credit to Rep. Trey Lamar of Senatobia, who wrote the bill with Baker.  Lamar's mother is across High Street on the Mississippi Supreme Court, hearing the arguments in Pardongate.  Moak finishes by asking Baker if he spoke with the Mississippi Bar about this bill.  Baker: "No."

As an aside, the outside counsel contracts on the AG's website have been up for at least 3 years.  Also, here's another ALEC piece that deals with hiring outside counsel only on hourly-fee basis.

Rep. Willie Bailey (D - Greenville) is now questioning Baker.  Says this is the first time in his 18 years that the Legislature has taken up a bill that would strip a constitutionally-elected officer of his powers.  Asks who would represent the parties in the coming lawsuit.

Got stuck on the phone for a couple of minutes, so missed a bit of the questions.  I do note, however, that there's yet to be a single Republican ask a question.

Here's the interesting part about today's debate: Snowden is acting as Speaker.  Where is Speaker Philip Gunn, and why is he not presiding?

The WorldCom case is being discussed at the moment.  In that case, Republicans were willing to accept a $3.5M payment from WorldCom, but the AG's Office proceeded forward with outside counsel and got the state over $100M instead.

Snowden says they are about to take a quick break for lunch, and that no more questions will be allowed after lunch.  Also, Snowden says that points of order will only be recognized before lunch.  Brown asks whether or not Snowden has the authority to not take points of order, and Snowden says Rule 4 of the House Rules does.  House Rule 4 being read now.  Rule 4 doesn't say what Snowden says it says.  Rule 4 doesn't say that the Speaker can limit points of order, it just says that points of order must be considered by the Speaker.  Snowden yields to Gunn (he's in the room, but not presiding), who says the Speaker has latitude to limit points of order as he sees fit.  Gunn's ruling is based on what he calls "respect for the members' time". Brown then asks whether or not it would be prudent to wait until amendments are offered, as one of those amendments may cure the point of order?  Gunn says that's an excellent point, but that any amendment that would cure the point of order should be offered before lunch as well.  (How in the world would anyone know whether the amendment would cure it before the point of order is made?)

Baker refuses to yield to any more questioning.  That leads to Rep. Rufus Straughter (D - Belzoni) rises and asks Speaker Gunn "Are we in a democracy?" Gunn says Baker doesn't have to yield to questions.  Gunn: "(Baker) is not required to answer questions."

Rules discussion is taking place on the floor.  The problem is that Baker left the podium by "yielding the floor" for questions.  Now those with questions about the bill can't get answers.

Holland asks whether or not the Joint Rules of the Legislature have been established.  Gunn says they have not.  Holland asks what the rules are with respect to fiscal notes.  Holland asks whether or not a fiscal note can be requested by any member.  Apparently the rule is that the author can determine whether or not a fiscal note is necessary, and if the author finds one is not necessary, one may be requested by a member, and if a majority agrees, one must be prepared.

Rep. Adrienne Wooten (D - Jackson) is now speaking on a point of personal privilege.  She said she's respected Baker in the past, but that she now feels disrespected by him because when it was her turn to ask questions, Baker refused to take any more questions.

Brown is now submitting his point of order.  Formby moves that the House adjourn until 1:30 p.m.  That "passes" on a voice vote.

And that point of order kills the bill altogether this afternoon as the House lawyers informed Gunn that the bill did, in fact, amend other sections of the Code by reference.  For those of you wondering, a bill "amends by reference" other sections of the Mississippi Code when it makes something illegal that is specifically legal in another section of the Code without amending the contrary section (or vice versa).


Jesus Was a Capricorn said...

I am embarrassed by this proposed “Sunshine Act”. It is obvious that the MS Republican Party is drunk with power and on a witch hunt after the one Democrat holding state-wide office. The AG’s office has had enormous success representing this state and collected MILLIONS of dollars from corporations under the leadership of Jim Hood. I am disgusted that the leadership of the House thinks that political maneuvering is more important than helping people who are searching for jobs and trying to put food on the table.

bill said...

Crap. This is getting complicated. Questions. Do all outside lawyers work on contingency? I don't see how that could be possible because they can't all be hired to try cases, but I don't know. I know I've suggested that they be paid hourly, and maybe some of them are, but I can see Brown's point about where the money will come from on a complex and drawn out case. I reject the argument that ONLY Hood's contingency attorneys could have won the Worldcom judgement. Capable attorneys working on an hourly rate could have done it, and even the ones who got rich off it could still have won the case under hourly billing. However, I concede that it's hard to budget a few hundred thousand - or a few million - that will be used for outside counsel to prosecute cases that aren't even known yet. Bill Billingsley

bill said...

At the risk of alienating some of my Republican friends in the House, is this the only way you could think of to keep Hood from enriching his cronies and his campaign? This simply enlarges the circle of cronies who can make money off the state. The AG, regardless of political party, is the state's lawyer, and taking his office out of the loop with outside attorneys just isn't the right thing to do. Might be time to cut our losses and move on from this one...BB