/Gunn hopes favorable ruling on GOP closed-door meetings provides second Ethics Commission win

Gunn hopes favorable ruling on GOP closed-door meetings provides second Ethics Commission win

The Ethics Commission may be considering the open meetings case as the most prominent issue since 2013. Another case involves the Mississippi House Speaker Gunn. READ MORE: Speaker Philip Gunn uses secret Capitol meeting to pass his bills, and limit public debate. Is this legal? The Ethics Commission voted 5-3 to reverse previous rulings and vote in Gunn’s favor. This case was about whether House members who were health care providers could vote for Medicaid funding. Medicaid is the largest source of revenue for many Mississippi health care providers. Based on Ethics Commission rulings for years, legislators who were in the health care industry did not vote on Medicaid funding bills due to the perceived conflict of interests. This issue was raised in 2013 when House Democrats blocked the Medicaid legislation, requesting a vote to expand Medicaid to cover the majority of the working poor. Gunn and the Republican majority were against expanding Medicaid. However, they did not want to vote for it. Problem was, the state Constitution needs approval from a majority, not just those who vote, in order to pass a budget bill. The 122-member House needed 63 yes votes to pass the budget bill. The vote of a majority of members could not be obtained to approve the Medicaid appropriations bills because they did not vote on the Ethics Commission ruling. No Medicaid budget was approved at the end of the 2013 regular session. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant claimed that he believed he was capable of running the Division of Medicaid without legislative funding. However, not many people took Bryant’s claim seriously. Gunn instead asked the Ethics Commission for a ruling on whether House members who were in the health care profession could vote on the Medicaid budget. The commission reversed earlier rulings that had said members shouldn’t vote due to conflict of interest. Paul Breazeale, a Jackson member of the Ethics Commission who was part of the majority that voted to reverse previous rulings, said “This is a difficult choice for all of us.” “We have had rulings that were different in the past. This is a timely matter.” Tom Hood, executive director of the commission, but not a voting member of it, supported the decision. He stated that since the Ethics Commission’s previous ruling banning legislators working in health care from voting for Medicaid, there have been state Supreme Court decisions allowing spouses of teachers to vote on education funding. The commission argued that if spouses of teachers were allowed to vote on education funding then legislators who work in health care should also be able vote on Medicaid funding. The most interesting part of the ruling was the addition by the Ethics Commission that legislators who work in health care can vote no on Medicaid expansion. Members who would vote yes on Medicaid expansion should not vote, as that would create a conflict of interests. Many people are still puzzled about the mental gymnastics that led to this conclusion nearly a decade later. Gunn will ask the Ethics Commission to rule that Gunn’s Republican Caucus meetings are not in violation of state law. The state Supreme Court has previously ruled that closed-door meetings of governmental bodies to discuss policy is a violation. In a separate case involving a legislative commission, the commission stated that “a public body must strictly adhere to the (Open Meetings Act) Act whenever a quorum gathers and discusses an issue under its supervision, control or jurisdiction or advisory power.” The 77-member Republican Caucus is more than the majority of the 122 members House. It meets regularly to discuss issues before the Legislature. Hood answered a question about whether the House Republican Caucus meeting had violated state law in a January interview. He said that neither the courts nor the Ethics Commission had ever dealt with such a case. But Gunn also argued that the meetings did not violate state law since the Republican caucus was not an official “public entity.” However, the Republican caucus does contain enough members of the Mississippi Legislature for official action. According to research by the state Maine, 12 states have laws that exempt party caucuses from open meetings laws. Mississippi law does NOT provide such an exemption.