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Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
All 77 Republicans in the Mississippi House of Representatives received a message early last Monday, March 14: Speaker Philip Gunn had called a House Republican Caucus meeting for 3 p.m. later that day.
Inside the Capitol committee room, which was closed to the public and reporters, Gunn told the Republicans that he, his chief of staff Trey Dellinger and Rep. Trey Lamar had majorly reworked a tax reform proposal that, if passed, could change the way Mississippi government funds public services for generations to come.
Gunn’s tax proposal is at the center of an epic leadership clash at the Capitol. The speaker and other House leaders have publicly said they will not allocate most of the $1.8 billion in federal stimulus funds until Senate Republicans back Gunn’s plan to eliminate the state’s income tax. Senate leaders, meanwhile, oppose Gunn’s tax plan, fearing it does too much too quickly and could jeopardize the state’s ability to fund the state government in the long run.
Very few House Republicans knew the details of Gunn’s updated tax proposal until that closed-door Monday caucus meeting. Several meeting attendees, who spoke with Mississippi Today on the condition of anonymity, said there was little discussion of the tax proposal or questions about the changes in the meeting.
Just a few minutes after the caucus meeting ended, the majority-Republican House Ways and Means Committee passed the bill in a regular public meeting. Every House Republican on the committee voted “yea” after asking no questions about the bill, despite not learning of the details until just a few minutes earlier.
A few minutes after the bill passed committee, the entire House passed it on the floor. No Republican asked a question, and every Republican voted “yea” on the bill.
The next day, Gunn held a press conference at the Capitol to tout “unanimous House Republican support” for his tax proposal, using it as the basis to chastise Senate Republicans for not falling in line. Dozens of House Republicans stood behind Gunn for the cameras to see.
The caucus meetings are just one tool Gunn regularly employs to strong-arm House Republicans into passing the bills he authors or supports and to restrict public debate among his fellow partymates.
Here’s how it works, according to several House Republicans who spoke with Mississippi Today:
The weekly closed-door Republican caucus meetings are usually the first place rank-and-file House Republicans are informed of details about major policies that Gunn and a handful of other House leaders determine privately. In the caucus meetings, Gunn asks the group of Republicans for support. Caucus members who feel they can’t support the bill in question are asked to speak privately about their positions with the relevant committee chairmen — Gunn appointees who are the speaker’s closest allies.
If members still feel they can’t support the bill after speaking with the chairman, the member will often be sent to speak with Gunn in a private meeting. Gunn can be forceful in those meetings, several House Republicans said, often demanding support and leaving little room for conversation or pushback.
Rank-and-file members often feel forced to vote for a policy they may not personally support or feel their district would support over fear Gunn or other House leaders will retaliate against them.
Mississippi speakers of the House have long used similar tactics to garner support on any given bill, and the bottom line for Republican representatives is simple: Not getting in line with the speaker’s wishes could lose them power and influence for their constituents back home, and in the worst cases, it could earn them a Republican primary challenger in the next election.
The effects of the strict process are clear: This session, Gunn is the primary author on 14 major pieces of legislation that are still pending or have already passed. No House Republican has voted against a single one of those bills at any point during the legislative process.
Gunn has convened these closed-door House Republican Caucus meetings since he became speaker in 2012. The meetings are typically called via private group text message and are never announced publicly. They are never open to the public. Several House Republicans told Mississippi Today that the caucus, in recent years under Gunn’s leadership, has been asked to vote on individual bills in these caucus meetings — though vote-taking in the meetings reportedly hasn’t happened this session.
Many people at the Capitol — including several Senate Republican leaders — question whether the House Republican Caucus meetings violate Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act, the state law that dictates how governmental bodies meet.
When Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann became lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the Senate in 2020, second-term Republican state Sen. Mike Seymour inquired whether caucus meetings were legal under the Open Meetings Act. After Senate staff did some research, Hosemann decided that he would not convene Senate Republican Caucus meetings because the staff advised him the meetings could very likely violate the Open Meetings Act.
The Open Meetings Act bars any public body from discussing policy changes privately, unless in a designated executive session. The state law defines “public body” as: “Any executive or administrative board, commission, authority, council, department, agency, bureau or any other policymaking entity, or committee thereof, of the State of Mississippi, or any political subdivision or municipal corporation of the state … which is supported wholly or in part by public funds or expends public funds, and any standing, interim or special committee of the Mississippi Legislature.”
The House Republican Caucus, boasting 77 members, makes up 63% of the entire Mississippi House of Representatives. A quorum of the House, according to legislative rules, is 50%. The caucus has the numbers to pass any bill they want without a single Democratic or independent vote, making these private caucus discussions critical to the policymaking process.
“In a 2017 decision involving a city council, the Mississippi Supreme Court reiterated that a meeting occurs under the Open Meetings Act when a quorum of a public body deliberates a matter under their authority,” said Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission. Hood would not speculate on whether the House Republican Caucus meetings violated state law.
The Open Meetings Act does not specifically mention legislative caucuses, and caucus meetings have never been challenged in the courts or before the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Gunn’s staff, when questioned by Mississippi Today, reiterated several times this session that the House Republican Caucus is not obligated to adhere to the Open Meetings Act because it is not a “public body.”
“The House Republican Caucus is not a public body under the Open Meetings Act,” said Emily Simmons, Gunn’s communications director. Dellinger, Gunn’s chief of staff, shared the same justification with Mississippi Today.
House leaders have used that interpretation to bar the public from the caucus meetings. During the March 14 caucus meeting regarding the tax bill, two journalists were barred entry.
The process by which Gunn and House leaders govern — including the caucus meetings — has created tension inside the Capitol that hasn’t been seen in years. Some political observers say the bickering House and Senate leaders is worse than it’s been since the tort reform debate of 2004.
A top Senate Republican leader, granted anonymity to speak candidly, put it this way:
“Take a look at votes in the House and the Senate. In the Senate, we have Republicans who are voting how they want to or how they think their districts would vote — even if it goes against what Senate leadership wants. That’s the way lawmaking should be. We may lose some votes, but that’s the way it goes. Everyone can go back to their districts and genuinely explain why they voted the way they did. But take a look at the House votes. They’re always in line with what leadership wants. You think every single House Republican really agrees with the speaker on every bill he wants passed? Funny how that works.”
Several House Republicans who spoke with Mississippi Today said they appreciate the caucus meetings because it gave them time to hammer out concerns or questions about bills before getting into a messy committee or floor debate that could delay final votes or kill the bills altogether.
But debate of legislation — especially legislation as transformational as Gunn’s tax plan — is intended to be public. The Open Meetings Act protects Mississippians and helps them make sounder decisions about whether their elected officials are representing their best interests.
Legal or not, the House Republican Caucus meetings jeopardize the democratic process. When major legislative debates occur only in the back rooms of the Capitol, the public cannot fully understand if their representative has their backs. Constituents are stripped of power, left without any genuine explanation for their lawmakers’ votes or concerns. Voters, in turn, are forced to make less informed decisions at the polls every four years. This dealing only stands to protect the politicians in power and harm the people they represent.
Perhaps House leaders should read the reasoning that their legislative predecessors wrote when the Mississippi Open Meetings Act was first enacted:
“It being essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, and that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein.”