Arts Commission transfer bills die

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Bills proposing a merger of the Arts Commission into the Development Authority died in committee Tuesday.

Two bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – would have folded the Arts Commission into the Mississippi Development Authority, transferring all duties of the current commission to the economic development office.

The proposed legislation, which opponents said would bring an unseemly level of politics to the arts community, spurred intense public backlash, social media campaigns and even community events.

“It’s gratifying that people all over the state joined together to let their voices be heard,” said Carol Puckett, Arts Commission board member and commission spokesperson. “Mississippians care deeply about arts and culture. It’s who we are, and it’s what sets us apart as a state. It was gratifying to see the process work and to see our legislators listen to their constituents. As an arts commissioner, I look forward to working with the governor and his team to make the Arts Commission the best it can be.”

Tuesday was the deadline for bills to survive by being passed out of committee. Under normal procedures the bills are dead.

However, parliamentary experts note there is a rarely used method that could revive the bills – and any others that officially died in committee Tuesday.

Any lawmaker can introduce a joint resolution at any point in the session to suspend the normal rules and consider any legislation. To suspend the rules, the resolution’s sponsor would need a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

If that two-thirds vote is granted, then the resolution could be passed at any time with a simple majority vote on the chamber floors.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who backed the Arts Commission legislation, discussed alternative ways of introducing legislation after it dies in committee.

“It is a process that the Legislature can use,” Bryant said on the Gallo Radio Show on Monday morning. “Sometimes it’s very beneficial. I’ve been in the middle of the session in which something occurs. You have the opportunity to introduce another bill, suspend the rules, get back to committee. It can be beneficial, and it can be detrimental.”

The Mississippi Arts Commission, in its 49th year of independent operation, would have been folded into the Mississippi Development Authority under the governor’s purview if lawmakers passed the proposed legislation.

Under the current commission’s structure, the governor appoints the 15 commissioners, but they have autonomous control of commission business.

The bills, sponsored by Senate and House Tourism chairwomen Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, and Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, would have transferred all Arts Commission power, responsibilities and assets, including employees, to the Mississippi Development Authority, which reports to Bryant.

The bills were introduced with no prior discussion with the commission’s executive director or 15-person board.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona

The goal of the new structure would have been “to promote Mississippi’s economic development through the arts,” according to the 22-page Senate bill. If passed, the current commission and its board would have been abolished, and governor would appoint a new 15-member advisory board, which would meet at the discretion of the Development Authority’s executive director, currently Glenn McCullough.

Chassaniol told Mississippi Today last week that she consulted with Bryant and the tourism department of MDA before filing the bill.

Legislators were flooded with emails, calls and social media posts in recent days from community arts leaders and residents concerned about the proposed takeover.

On Sunday evening, more than 100 residents protesting the bills gathered at The Powerhouse arts center in Oxford. Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, and Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, attended and reassured attendees of their opposition to the bills.

Chassaniol and Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, received numerous calls and emails from people inside and outside the state who oppose the legislation. Social media campaigns against the legislation circulated widely since last week.

Editor’s note: Mississippi Today donors Donna Barksdale, Carol Puckett and Nan Sanders serve on the Mississippi Arts Commission. Barksdale is chairperson of the Mississippi Today board of directors.