A day after Mississippi Today reported on a possible double standard for Capitol events, legislative leaders took full responsibility for uneven enforcement of the policy.
In a joint statement, Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Greg Snowden and President Pro Tem Sen. Terry Burton, acknowledged “the unfortunate optics” of the policy enforcement.
The Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration manages events at the Capitol, and recently notified groups who had been approved to use the space that press conferences held inside the building will be confined to a 25-person limit.
Rallies are strictly prohibited.
Despite this policy, school choice advocacy organization Empower Mississippi was allowed to host a rally inside the Capitol on Tuesday with hundreds of participants, including Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn.
A Jackson-based parent teacher association group which filed a similar request for next month has been told by DFA that it will not be allowed to hold a similar event in the rotunda space.
“We acknowledge that enforcement of this pre-existing policy at this time (mid-Session) opens us up to the allegation that we are somehow playing favorites or appearing unfair,” the statement read. “We accept the unfortunate optics of the situation we find ourselves in. Regardless, however, we are not prepared to allow a bad situation to worsen through continued inaction.”
In a Senate Rules committee meeting Thursday morning, Burton told members “The optics are bad, but the policy is good.”
The DFA policy states that press conferences in the Capitol rotunda are limited to the 25-person limit, and signs are not allowed. Rallies must take place outside, on the Capitol steps. Both Empower Mississippi and the Jackson Council PTA submitted requests in September to hold a press conference during the legislative session.
Both noted in their applications that they expected more than 25 participants.
In an interview with Mississippi Today, Burton explained why one group was allowed to hold a rally and one was not.
Burton said the PTA group applied for a rally inside the building, although records obtained by Mississippi Today show the group requested to hold a press conference.
“We talked to them (Empower) and said a press conference is not a rally, don’t hold a rally. We were assured they wouldn’t, but the crowd got out of hand,” the Senate Rules committee chair said. “You can’t really control them, I guess, when they get in here. That’s why if you think you’re going to have a bunch of people here, you need to be outside.”
Before the event, Empower Mississippi repeatedly advertised through emails that more than 1,000 people would attend.
Other groups have also skirted the policy.
During last year’s session, public school supporters also held a rally to demand inclusion in the potential rewrite of the school funding formula at the “Seat at the Table” rally in March 2017. Both the House and Senate adjourned before the rally took place and although several legislators attended, none spoke.
The statement from the legislative leaders on Thursday acknowledged “enforcement of this policy has been lax, uneven, and sometimes even non-existent, and for this we take full responsibility” and the existing policy will be strictly enforced.
Here is the statement released by the leaders:
JOINT STATEMENT OF SPEAKER PRO TEMPORE SNOWDEN AND PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE BURTON
January 25, 2018
The long-standing existing written policy of the Department of Finance and Administration has been that no “rallies” are allowed within the Capitol Building. Press conferences with 25 or fewer participants may be permitted upon proper application to DFA, but no signs, chants, etc., characteristic of a “rally” are allowed in the building by any organization or group.
Unfortunately, enforcement of this policy has been lax, uneven, and sometimes even non-existent, and for this we take full responsibility. On several occasions last Session, disruptive events sponsored by diverse groups were allowed to occur which hampered the working environment of legislators and staff. Shortly after the current Session began, we met and mutually agreed that the policy should strictly be enforced going forward. Our guidelines were communicated, clearly, we believe, with respect to an event that occurred in the Rotunda last Tuesday. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, these guidelines were not followed.
We jointly reiterate that the existing policy will be strictly enforced immediately. DFA and Capitol Police have been instructed to disallow any activity not in accord with the policy, and to disperse any group not acting in the manner expected and required. As has always been the case, “rallies” are permitted, upon proper application to DFA, on the southern (main) steps of the Capitol, but not inside the building. We have assured DFA and Capitol Police that the Management Committee and the Rules Committee, respectively, will have their backs as they carry out their duties.
We acknowledge that enforcement of this pre-existing policy at this time (mid-Session) opens us up to the allegation that we are somehow playing favorites or appearing unfair. We accept the unfortunate optics of the situation we find ourselves in. Regardless, however, we are not prepared to allow a bad situation to worsen through continued inaction. Accordingly the policy will be strictly enforced going forward for all organizations and groups, with no exceptions and no favoritism to anyone.
The written policy in full is available from DFA.
Representative Greg Snowden
Speaker Pro Tempore
Chairman, House Management Committee
Senator Terry C. Burton
President Pro Tempore
Chairman, Senate Rules Committee