Is there a double standard for Capitol events?

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Public school advocates say they are being denied the opportunity to hold a rally inside the Capitol similar to the one Tuesday that featured state leaders promoting school choice.

The large, boisterous rally in the Capitol rotunda featuring Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn far exceeded the rules restricting such events to a press conference of no more than 25 persons.

Jackson-based public school advocates who are planning an event in February were told the 25-person limit will be strictly enforced.

Both groups sought permits last fall for their events from the agency that controls the space, the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration (DFA).

The crackdown on the limit has raised eyebrows because its enforcement comes after the school choice rally that gained wide media coverage and left the Capitol jammed with participants.

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves at the School Choice Rally in Jackson with Empower Mississippi leader Grant Callen behind him, in gray.

Enforcement of the rules governing use of the rotunda area has varied. In past years, Capitol police officers have told some groups that showed up with signs that rallies were not permitted inside; at other times that rule has not been enforced.

The Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration manages events held at the Capitol. Anyone who wants to host an event or press conference in the building, typically held in the second floor rotunda, must submit a reservation request through the department.

Press conferences are a daily occurrence at the Capitol during the legislative session. The policy for use of the Capitol states that a permit will be revoked and events will not be approved if the group requests to hold a rally or protest inside the state Capitol.

Jackson Public Schools parent Michelle Henry filed a reservation request on behalf of the Jackson Council PTA for a Feb. 20 press conference to speak out in favor of stronger teacher retention efforts, fully funding education, and other priorities. Henry, who is vice president of the middle school section of the PTA, said they expected at least 100 people to attend. On Tuesday evening she received a memo from a DFA official that outlined the requirements for holding a press conference inside the Capitol.

The memo stated “Reservations shall be permitted at 2nd Floor Rotunda only for Press Conferences, not Rallies. Press Conferences held inside the Capitol shall be limited to 25 attendees excluding media.” Press conferences routinely include more than 25 participants.

The memo said signs are also prohibited on the second floor and reservations for press conferences inside the Capitol which have been advertised as rallies are “subject to immediate cancellation.”

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

Students, parents and advocates fill the Capitol rotunda during National School Choice Week.

Despite this, Empower Mississippi organized the event held Tuesday morning in honor of National School Choice Week, advertised to media in press releases as a rally.

The event drew hundreds of parents, students and advocates to the Capitol rotunda. Many attendees held yellow signs with phrases like “Choice means hope!” and “Celebrate teachers – celebrate choice!”

Bryant, Gunn and Reeves each spoke at the rally, where they vocalized support for programs that allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools or purchase tutoring and other services.

Empower Mississippi president Grant Callen said this year’s event was the group’s largest to date and they intend to hold their event outside next year to accommodate more people. Prior to the event, Callen said on social media that there would be 1,000 people in attendance.

“We had already been given permission this year to do the event inside, so we had already gotten approval and just made plans to sort of re-evaluate how we do it next year,” Callen said.

Empower Mississippi, which has educational and political arms, is also among the influential lobbying organizations in the Legislature and makes donations to candidates.

Empower PAC donated $10,000 to Reeves in 2016 and $500 to Republican Rep. Missy McGee, who replaced former representative Toby Barker, according to the group’s most recent campaign finance filings.

In 2015, the group helped to unseat four incumbent Republican lawmakers in DeSoto County who had previously blocked a charter-school bill from passing out of a key House committee. The PAC spent around $100,000 on the campaigns of Republican Reps. Dana Criswell, Dan Eubanks, Ashley Henley and Steve Hopkins, all of whom support expanding school choice in Mississippi.

Empower is partially funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for Children, a group that lobbies and advocates for expanding voucher, tax credit scholarship and education savings account laws, in addition to charter schools.

“It has always been the policy of DFA to limit the second floor space of the Capitol to press conferences and to allow groups to host rallies only outside on the South Steps,” said DFA spokesman Chuck McIntosh in an email. “The group that held yesterday’s event reserved the space for a press conference.”

McIntosh said the memo reminding applicants of the 25-person restriction was sent Jan. 19 to all who all who have reservations in the rotunda.

According to a copy of the contract Mississippi Today obtained, Empower Mississippi submitted its request in September to host a press conference with 100 attendees expected.

“This group made reservations before the attached Memo was created, so they were grandfathered in,” McIntosh said.

Henry also submitted her request in September, around the same time as Empower Mississippi, and said the timing of the policy’s implementation is unfair.

“I think we should be grandfathered in too,” she said.

McIntosh said the second floor was traditionally only for press conferences and other events approved by the Senate Rules and House Management Committees, he said. The agency has noticed multiple groups reserving the space for press conferences over the last year when the intent was actually to host a rally, he said.

“These are two distinct types of events and the latter was never intended for the second floor,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh said DFA is working on revisions to the formal policy but sent out the memo so all groups who have reservations moving forward know to move their event outside if they intend to host a rally.

“The current use policy has been reviewed recently in light of use of the second floor that has varied from original intent,” McIntosh said.