House Speaker Philip Gunn employed one of the rarest legislative tactics at his disposal to ensure the death of a bill that would abolish the board of trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning.
Ten Democrats filed a bill earlier this month that would abolish the state’s 12-member college board and allow each of the state’s eight public universities to appoint their own board of trustees. Those boards would oversee the universities’ finances and make executive leadership decisions.
The bill’s primary author Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said the bill was inspired by the controversial 2017 president search the IHL board conducted for Jackson State University, though Bell also pointed to the controversial 2019 chancellor search at the University of Mississippi.
“It doesn’t matter what school you represent — no one has been happy with the IHL board,” Bell told Mississippi Today this week. “They certainly don’t represent the interests of (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), but they don’t represent the interests of any of our schools. They serve at the will and pleasure of the governor, and the governor appoints individuals that lean toward the governor’s mindset. It’s wrong, and we wanted to do something about it.”
But shortly after Bell filed the bill, Gunn killed its chances of even making the House floor for debate.
After House members file any bill, the House speaker has the sole discretion to assign that bill to a specific committee for consideration. Controversial bills or pieces of legislation that the speaker opposes are often double-referred, meaning they must pass out of two committees before they can move to the floor. Double-referred bills almost always die in committee.
But during this year’s committee assignment process, Gunn made the rare decision to triple-refer the bill that would abolish the IHL board. If the bill is to even make it to the House floor for debate, it must pass the Universities and Colleges Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the Public Health and Human Services Committee. All three committees are chaired by Republicans who are seen as close with Gunn.
The practice of triple-referring bills is extremely rare. This year, Gunn triple-referred just five bills of the nearly 1,600 that have been filed: four bills that would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in Mississippi and the abolish IHL bill.
Gunn’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“(House leaderships) clearly haven’t taken time out to even review the bill or ask questions about why the bill was filed,” Bell said. “It’s par for the course. I’m just not surprised at all. They’re not taking into account how individuals feel about the legislative process or the IHL board as a whole.”
Republican Rep. Trey Lamar, one of the most powerful lawmakers in Jackson and a close confidant of Gunn, filed two measures this session that would equally split the IHL board appointment power between the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house. Under the state constitution, the governor is solely responsible for IHL board appointments.
Gunn single-referred Lamar’s measures, increasing the chances of their passing.
Bell said that he’ll consider supporting Lamar’s measures, but he drew contrasts to how the two plans were handled by Gunn.
“For (Lamar’s) bill to be single-referred, it shows that the leadership knows IHL change is necessary, but they don’t want a Democrat to get credit for it,” Bell said. “It’s just disrespectful.”