Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect which House committee members voted for or against keeping legislative contracts secret.
Faced with a public records request from Mississippi Today for the state’s contract with EdBuild, a legislative committee voted Tuesday to adopt a new policy mandating that all contracts it approves be confidential.
The House Management Committee, which approves contracts entered into by the House of Representatives, used a voice vote to pass the policy, which states “All contracts entered into by the House Management Committee shall be confidential and shall not be released to any person or entity, except as specifically directed by the House Management Committee only when the committee deems necessary for the execution of the contract.”
The action comes as a select group of state legislators have been meeting to review spending procedures, including contracting, by a number of state agencies.
The policy also states that any House member may “read and/or review” a contract, but “contents of the contract shall remain confidential and the House member shall not copy, duplicate or photograph the contract in any manner.”
The state entered in to a $250,000 contract with the New Jersey-based nonprofit EdBuild in October. EdBuild is charged with reviewing and potentially rewriting the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula that dictates how much state money public schools get each year.
The public will be given its first chance to offer public comment on the funding formula at a one-hour session at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Capitol. All comments will be limited to three minutes.
Mississippi Today submitted a public records request for the contract to the House of Representatives on Oct. 12. House Clerk Andrew Ketchings told Mississippi Today the committee would have to vote whether to release the contract at its meeting.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, the committee was presented with and adopted the new policy.
Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, the chair of the committee, said the new policy would increase transparency by giving members of the House a way to review contracts.
“The Senate has previously interpreted that even members can’t see contracts,” Snowden said, noting the House’s policy mirrors a similar Senate policy.
Requests for comment from Speaker of the House Philip Gunn were not immediately returned.
Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said the Rules Committee will vote on the same policy at its meeting on Nov. 23.
Burton said it was already the Legislature’s policy that travel records are the only public records of the Legislature.
“Emails, contracts, text messages and all that, those are not public records,” Burton said.
Burton said the need for a new policy was brought up because there had been questions around state representatives and senators’ access to documents such as contracts.
“That’s really the reason for the policy – you don’t want contracts just floating around all over the place,” Burton said. “If you ever open that door, it just gets wider and wider.”
Before the policy was passed, the Legislature essentially controlled its own rules about which records are public and which are not. The Mississippi Public Records Law says nothing in the law “shall be construed as denying the Legislature the right to determine the rules of its own proceedings and to regulate public access to its records.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, questioned why such a policy was brought up at the last minute with no context. Hines and other members said they had been unaware of Mississippi Today’s public records request.
“I think it’s unfair, I really do,” Hines said.
Hines, Rep. Willie Perkins-D, Greenwood, and Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, voted against the policy. Rep. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, was not present at the meeting.
Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen, contacted Mississippi Today on Wednesday to clarify he voted “nay” on the voice vote taken in the committee meeting. Turner, who was sitting next to Brown in the meeting, confirmed Brown’s vote.
Because it was a voice vote, no official vote was recorded. Other committee members present and considered voting in favor of keeping the contracts secret were: Snowden, Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, Rep. Larry Byrd, R-Petal, and Rep. Ray Rogers, R-Pearl.
Layne Bruce, head of the Mississippi Press Association, said the adoption of the policy is a “negative precedent.”
“I know that the Legislature is exempt from a lot of the elements of the public records act, but they’re asking for public comment at the hearing on Thursday and … it just seems silly to ask people to come and comment on this whole process and they’re not even entitled to all of the information surrounding it,” Bruce said, referring to the Thursday public meeting with EdBuild where the public can make three-minute comments on the issue.
A request to EdBuild for the contract was also not granted. A representative from the group said they had been asked to “refer these requests to the appropriate committees.”