One of the state’s top budget writers is walking back some of his recent comments about a controversial bill to give the governor control of the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation.

Supporters of Senate Bill 2567, known as the “Health Agency Reorganization Act of 2017,” say it would streamline the agencies, opening the door for them to share some services down the road. Opponents, including some Senate Democrats, are uneasy, and say the legislation could politicize vital agencies.

At the center of the firestorm are comments made earlier in the week by “Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee. During a committee meeting Thursday, when the bill narrowly missed defeat, Clarke had said the bill would not strip the three boards of their power.

By Friday morning, Clarke had reversed course.

In an interview with Mississippi Today, Clarke acknowledged that the bill, as currently written, would radically shift departmental power away from each agency’s board and place it with the governor.

“You have two extremes: one where (the boards) have total control and another where they have an advisory role and no power. But I would want them to have a health-policy setting role in the Department of Health, and I will adjust the legislation,” Clarke told Mississippi Today. “This is just the first round, it’s got a long way to go. I’d like to have that clarified as we move the legislation through.”

Clarke also said he would be open to an amendment that would preserve the boards’ power, at least for the board of health.

Clarke’s comments are a stunning departure from his description of the bill on Thursday, when he implied that having the boards in an “advisory role” would maintain the status quo.

“(This legislation) doesn’t change the board. The board is still there in its advisory role,” Clarke said.

The proposal prompted scathing responses from the chairmen of those boards, who called it a tragedy and predicted it would destabilize the agencies.

Dr. Luke Lampton, who chairs the state health board, had called Clarke’s statement that power would remain with the boards “very misleading.” Lampton’s concerns were echoed by his counterpart, Dr. J. Richard Barry, who sent a letter to supporters saying that the reorganization would jeopardize a system that currently “allows policies and goals to be developed in a neutral manner based on data and current needs while reducing political conflicts.”

“The very essence of the board would be changed,” Lampton said Thursday.

Clarke now says that his earlier statement mischaracterized provisions of the bill.

“I see what he’s saying,” Clarke said, referring to Lampton. “I hope if I misspoke on parts of the bill — that happens lots of times when bills are explained, if you can believe it. Things don’t get mentioned, things that are in the bills. It’s why you have to read the bills. (And) I am open to revisiting what the functions of the board are going forward.”

On Friday, Clarke complimented the heads of all three agencies, calling the state health officer, Dr. Mary Currier, “a great head of the Department of Health.”

“They’re good people; just the people you’d choose to run the agencies. This is not anything directed at any one of them,” Clarke said. “… I just like getting some kind of consistency.”

But Clarke scoffed at the idea that scientists and medical professionals are better suited to running state health agencies than an elected official.

“Who’s accountable to the people? It’s an elected official. He’d be hearing from the public, whereas right now you could make the argument that the whole department is insulated from public scrutiny. If the whole public gets riled up about something they’re not changing any board members … that’s accountability.”

Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.