Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, wants to amend the Mississippi Constitution to limit the governor’s sole power to appoint trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning — a direct response to a controversial chancellor search the IHL board conducted at the University of Mississippi last fall.
Lamar, an Ole Miss alumnus whose mother sits on the IHL board, filed two measures this session that would equally split the IHL appointment power between the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a close confidant of House Speaker Philip Gunn, Lamar is one of the most powerful lawmakers under the Capitol dome in Jackson.
“It dawned on me over the last year that maybe it’s not the best policy to have all 12 board seats appointed by the same person, as is the case right now,” Lamar told Mississippi Today this week. “Especially after what happened last year (at Ole Miss), I think it’s worthy of some discussion and debate.”
IHL board members — considered among the most powerful political appointees in the state — are appointed by the governor, as dictated by the state Constitution, and confirmed by the Senate. After legislators and voters amended the constitution in 2004 to reduce board members’ staggered terms from 12 years to nine years, former Gov. Phil Bryant in 2018 became the first governor in the state’s history to appoint every member of the board.
But because the current appointment power is set forth in the state Constitution, Lamar’s proposal to change how IHL board members are appointed is more complex than the passing of a typical bill.
To amend the Constitution, lawmakers must file a concurrent resolution. These concurrent resolutions require a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate to pass. If those vote requirements are met, the resolution does not move to the governor’s desk like a normal bill would; instead, the proposed amendment would be placed on a statewide ballot for voters, who would get the final say.
In this case, however, state code must also be changed to accommodate Lamar’s plan, so he filed a separate regular bill. That bill, which changes language in state law to split the IHL appointment power, must be approved by a simple majority in both the House and the Senate. If passed by both chambers, the bill would move to the governor’s desk for consideration.
If the governor vetoes the bill — a distinct possibility, given the nature of the proposal — a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate would have to vote to override the veto for the bill to be enacted into law.
Both the resolution (and its subsequent ratification by popular vote) and the bill must pass for the IHL appointment changes to be enacted.
The IHL board came under intense public scrutiny in October 2019, when the board skipped several steps in their search process to appoint Glenn Boyce, the former IHL commissioner who many board members worked closely with for years, as chancellor at the University of Mississippi, the largest of the state’s eight public universities.
Critics of the search process, many of whom believed Boyce was less qualified than several applicants who flew to Jackson for interviews with the IHL board, signed petitions and called for sweeping IHL reforms. Faculty at the university fumed and considered whether to formally censure the IHL board.
Alumni from some of the state’s seven other public universities — namely Jackson State University and Mississippi State University, which were subjected to similar controversial appointments by the IHL board in recent years — also questioned the viability of the IHL board in the wake of the Boyce appointment.
Talk of IHL reform became so widespread that lobbyists representing the eight universities met in late fall of 2019 and discussed strategy in case the Legislature made a serious run on reform in the 2020 session, several sources told Mississippi Today.
Lamar said dozens of people called or messaged him about the Boyce appointment and the process and asked about possible reforms. In the interview this week, Lamar reiterated his support for Boyce and insisted his measures this session were unrelated to his mother’s position on the board.
“Just after observing the process and hearing people’s perceptions of the how the process unfolded in that (Boyce) hire and other hires the board has made, I thought filing this bill and starting a conversation about what, if anything, should change was appropriate,” Lamar said.
Both the resolution and the bill face a March 3 deadline to pass out of their respective committees. After that, the House has until March 12 to pass the measures from the floor before they can move to the Senate for consideration.
The terms of four members of the IHL board — Hal Parker, Ford Dye, Shane Hooper and Ann Lamar — expire on May 7, 2021. Under the current constitution, Gov. Tate Reeves will appoint four new members to replace them. Four more IHL board members will roll off the board in 2024.