Republican House, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, speaks to lawmakers at a party luncheon at the Mississippi Capitol, after presenting the House's position on their state income tax elimination legislation before reporters in Jackson, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

In a controversial December ruling, the Mississippi Ethics Commission said the Legislature is not subject to the state’s open meetings law.

But a new Senate bill, pending before the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, would clarify that the Legislature is covered by the open meetings law.

“I just think you should be transparent,” said freshman Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Brookhaven, who filed Senate Bill 2667. “…I believe you should be transparent.”

The bill is designed “to clearly subject the Legislature to the provisions of the open meetings law.”

The Ethics Commission by a 5-3 vote in December ruled that the Legislature was exempt from the state’s open meeting. The ruling was eyebrow-raising since in no place does the law specifically say that the Legislature is exempt, even though it does list entities that are not covered by the law such as law enforcement and jury deliberations. The law goes on to say all policymaking entities are supposed to meet in public.

The issue arose from an ethics complaint filed by the Mississippi Free Press saying House Speaker Philip Gunn was violating the open meetings law when the Republican Caucus, which includes 75 of the 122-member House, meets routinely behind closed doors. The Mississippi Constitution mandates that a majority of either the House or Senate is a quorum or enough members to conduct business. Plus, the constitution mandates for the Legislature to meet in public.

Mississippi Today has documented, based on multiple accounts, that the House Republican Caucus often discusses policy issues and legislation during the closed-door meetings. When other public bodies have met behind closed doors to discuss policy issues, it has been deemed to be a violation of the open meetings law by the courts.

READ MORE: Speaker Philip Gunn uses secret Capitol meetings to pass his bills and restrict public debate. Is it legal?

At one point, Senate Republicans also were contemplating holding regular caucus meetings, but opted not to based on the belief such meetings would violate the open meeting law.

Barrett said he did not want to comment on whether he believed the Ethics Commission made the right ruling. He also said he was not forming an opinion on the recent House Republican Caucus ruling.

But if his bill becomes law, it presumably would stop the House from having such meetings. House Republicans have continued to hold the meetings this session. Various sources told Mississippi Today that hours before the House recently took up and passed legislation banning gender affirming surgery and drugs for Mississippians age 18 and under, the bill was discussed behind closed doors in a House Republican Caucus meeting.

Barrett’s bill has 19 — mostly Republican — co-sponsors in the 52-member Senate. If the bill does pass the Senate, it will need to be OK’d by House leadership to be considered in that chamber.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Josh Harkins, R-Brandon, also has filed legislation to bring forth the entire open meetings law. While he made no changes in the bill, it would allow him and other legislators to make changes to the law through the amendment process during the 2023 session.

Barrett’s bill also would allow those filing a complaint alleging an entity was violating the open meetings law to bypass the Ethics Commission and go straight to chancery court for a ruling.

Rulings of the Ethics Commission already can be appealed to chancery court.

READ MORE: Ethics Commission contradiction: Members take oath to constitution, but can’t consider it in rulings

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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.