Legislature forced to release secret contract

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Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at Hobnob 2016.

Sereena Henderson | Mississippi Today

Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at Hobnob 2016.

State legislative leaders late Monday reversed course and agreed to post the contract with the EdBuild consulting firm on the state’s Transparency website.

Monday’s action came hours after Attorney General Jim Hood sent a letter to the legislative leadership Monday informing them that a policy making legislative contracts secret is not legal.

The original contract can be read here. An addendum to the contract, the nondisclosure agreement between EdBuild and the Legislature can be read here.

Citing state law, Hood acknowledges the Legislature can regulate access to its records, but it also states that the Legislature is subject to the Public Records Act and “namely, the Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act.” The Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act mandates all government agencies to post and make public their contracts on the Transparency website within 14 days of execution of the contract.

“Therefore, the EdBuild contract should already have been published on the Transparency website,” the letter states. Mississippi Today had sought a copy of the EdBuild contract entered into between the Legislature and the New Jersey nonprofit which has been hired to review and possibly rewrite the state’s formula for funding public K-12 education.

Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Greg Snowden and President Pro Tempore Sen. Terry Burton sent out a joint statement Monday afternoon saying the contract will be posted to the Transparency website.

“Over the last four days as House and Senate leadership continued to study the issue, Legislative legal staff concluded the contract should be posted to the Transparency Mississippi website,” their statement said. “The contract has been released to the Department of Finance and Administration to be posted on the Transparency Mississippi website.”

Mississippi Today had filed an open records request to see the contract. With that request pending, on Nov. 15, the House Management Committee adopted a policy on a 5-4 voice vote mandating all contracts it approves be confidential.

When asked whether the policy is still in place and applicable to other contracts, Rep. Snowden said: “The Management Committee will meet next in December. In the meantime, we will certainly adhere to statutory requirements.”

Sen. Burton said following the legal staff’s conclusion, the Rules Committee will not take up a similar policy at its meeting this week as planned.

In adopting the new contract secrecy policy, the House committee members said they were trying to provide access to members of the Legislature to the contracts. Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, also had made a public records requests to see the Legislature’s contract with EdBuild and been denied access.

Requests from comment from Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves following the adoption of the policy went unanswered.

Gov. Phil Bryant told Mississippi Public Broadcasting shortly after that he is “for open records,” but did not specifically comment on the House’s policy.

“I personally have tried throughout my career to be very open with records. Those are the taxpayers’ dollars and the taxpayers’ business,” Bryant said.

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.