Under the COVID-19 safety protocols being put in place for the coming weeks, members of the Mississippi House can participate in the legislative process from the comfort of their homes.

On the Senate side, members also can participate via the internet – through Zoom – but at some point each day they must come to the Capitol if they want to be paid.

Both chambers have reported positive COVID tests in recent days – at least two in the Senate and one the House. Legislative leaders are trying to prevent what happened last summer while in session where 49 members tested positive, as did multiple staff members and lobbyists.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, has proposed recessing the session until later in the year to provide time for more COVID-19 vaccines to be administered. House Speaker Philip Gunn has rejected that proposal. Instead, the House leadership has developed a unique plan where members can log into Zoom to participate not only when the Legislature is in full session, but also when they are in committee meetings.

When House members log in for the full session, they are counted as present and thus receive the $151 per diem that legislators receive during the legislative session.

“We are not going to meet on the floor – we are going to do it by Zoom,” Gunn said. “That was our idea. I told Delbert (Wednesday) night that we were planning to do that. We talked with legal staff to make sure we could do that. They said, yes that’s fine. Then we talked with the IT people to make sure it could be done, and they said yes, in fact, he’s already got it set up to go.

“What we’re doing is, a chairman will be in (a committee room) by himself on a computer,” Gunn added. “All the members will attend by Zoom, and they’ll have the ability to ask questions and offer amendments and debate and do all the normal stuff.”

On Friday the House passed legislation that changes the section of House rules which state there must be a quorum (at least half the members) present to conduct business to say participating online will count toward the quorum until March 1.

In the Senate, the plan also is for committee meetings to be online for senators to participate, but to receive per diem they must check in at the Capitol at some point during the day.

Senate leaders are basing that decision on a section of state law saying the per diem pay is based on “actual attendance at a session.” The Constitution, which is more vague, simply says, “a majority of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business.”

Gunn said the Legislature is at a point in the session making it easier to conduct business online. The Legislature will meet primarily in committees until Feb. 2, passing out bills to be considered before the full chambers. The two chambers’ time in full session during this period of the legislative process is normally brief.

After the committee work is complete, Gunn said it will not be as easy to meet remotely when legislators are in full session for long periods daily to take up and vote on bills. Gunn said at that point other safety precautions will be taken to socially distance in the Capitol.

But with proper safety precautions, Gunn said he sees no need to delay the session.

Referring to the Senate’s call to recess the session, he said, “What they need to do is take a vote… They’ve been talking about it and talking about it, and they need to vote on something and send it to me. It’s a two-thirds vote. If they feel strongly about it, let them take a vote – do they have two thirds that agree on anything?  Until then it’s an academic discussion.”

But many members of the Senate see the situation differently. Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, the Senate Democratic leader, said he agrees with Hosemann that the session should be delayed.

“It is more valuable when we fully participate in the process by being here,” Simmons said. “Anytime we change the way we do our work we are not effectively representing our people.”

 But not every member of the Senate seemed enamored with taking a break. Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, pointed out members had committed to leases in Jackson for the planned three-month session and a delay would mean they could lose that money as well as incur other expenses when they came back later in the year.

“Will we be compensated for having to incur the extra days and cover the things that go along with that?” Wiggins asked. “I think everyone knows that we are citizen legislators. People have jobs. People have things like that and accommodations must be made.”

Wiggins said it would be better to take safety precautions and remain in session.

Legislators receive $10,000 salary for the session and the per diem plus mileage. In addition, legislators receive $1,500 monthly out of session. The $10,000 salary is not prorated based on how many days the members are in session.

Also on Friday, the House passed a resolution to call for a joint session for Gov. Tate Reeves to deliver a State of the State speech at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, on the south steps of the Capitol. If there is inclement weather, the resolution calls for the joint session to be held in the House chamber where presumably many members would watch via the internet.

The House’s State of the State resolution most likely will be taken up Monday by senators who could change it.

Members of the public should be able to watch most committee meetings online through a YouTube channel that can be accessed here.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.