Flanked by cheering and applauding Republican members of the House, Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, puts away his speaking points after presenting the House's position on their state income tax elimination legislation before reporters at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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Rep. Bryant Clark, a Democrat from Pickens, stood on the House floor last week for what looked to be a routine amendment to a Republican-authored bill that would create an $80 million grant program for financially struggling hospitals.

All session long, Democrats have hammered Republicans for not doing more to address the Mississippi hospital crisis, which threatens to shutter dozens of medical facilities across the state. Hospital leaders, doctors and nurses, local elected officials, and many everyday Mississippians have begged lawmakers to step in to save the system.

Clark explained that his amendment would increase the Republicans’ proposed $80 million grant program to $275 million. His amendment would also have added an additional $25 million program for hospitals with 75 or fewer beds. With a $4 billion budget surplus, Clark argued, Republicans could do better to keep hospitals open than a one-time, $80 million grant program.

But as soon as Clark finished explaining his amendment, Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn recognized Republican Rep. Steve Massengill, who made a motion to table Clark’s amendment. That motion passed by a vote of 70-44, killing his amendment and abruptly cutting off what could have been — and perhaps should have been — a longer, earnest debate about the amount of money lawmakers should provide struggling hospitals.

In the end, Republicans did not have to vote on Clark’s amendment. They instead simply killed it and later passed exactly what they wanted: $80 million for struggling hospitals, and $80 million only.

House Republican leaders, who have nearly complete power to act without any true dissent or opposition, appear to be further tightening their grip on the legislative process by motioning to table amendments offered by Democrats. It’s a seldom used procedural move, but Republicans did it twice last week. And smart money would be on them continuing it in coming days.

READ MOREThe purposefully broken lawmaking process in Jackson

The procedure allows Republicans to avoid taking tough votes. And in the process, they can stifle debate about issues that large majorities of the state’s voters want them to address — like the state’s critical hospital crisis and other health care-related issues.

When a bill comes up on the House floor for a vote, any lawmaker can propose an amendment to that bill. This is a critical step in the legislative process that often improves pieces of legislation and ensures that the public can fully understand why or how laws are passed. Often, this is when some of the most important Mississippi political debates occur.

In the Mississippi Legislature, where Republicans have supermajority control of both the House and Senate, amendments live or die based on what the Republican chair defending the original bill says on the floor. But even under GOP rule, there is almost always fair consideration and debate of any amendment in question.

That is, until last week, when House Republicans tabled Clark’s amendment on the hospital grants bill. The move is an escalation of tension between Republican leaders and Democrats, who have virtually no voting power inside the Capitol but have implemented a pesky and persistent political strategy this session.

Here’s how Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader from Natchez, explained it:

We introduce legislation, they kill it. It doesn’t even get a debate in committee. A lot of times, the committees don’t even meet. Republicans have a supermajority, so they’re able to do that and anything else they want to. But when we go home and constituents ask us how the Republicans voted on something, we can’t answer that question because they didn’t even allow it to come up for debate, let alone a vote. You don’t really know where Republicans stand on anything because of how they conduct business.

They’re killing all our bills — bills that would do common sense things like help hospitals keep their doors open and help poor, working folks afford trips to the doctor and help poor mothers not die after giving birth. Our next step, then, is amending legislation on the floor. That puts Republicans on the board, so to speak, on the record with the public. 

All we can do is try to make sure every Mississippian sees what’s happening. We want Republicans to be transparent with their constituents. We want everyone to know exactly where they stand on the big issues. It’s about transparency and knowing what the people you elect are doing at the Legislature. If 70-80% of the electorate wants Medicaid expansion and Republicans kill it over and over again, they’re effectively voting against the interests of the electorate. We want to put them on the board about that.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez

House Republicans, apparently, have caught on to the Democrats’ strategy. It’s evident that Democrats aren’t going to stop proposing amendments about additional hospital funding, about  expanding Medicaid to provide up to 300,000 working Mississippians with health care coverage, about extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to help new and expecting mothers afford decent health care.

READ MORE: Republicans don’t have to listen to their Black colleagues. That’s how they designed it.

And looking ahead on the House calendar, there are several Republican bills dealing with health care issues that Democrats could attach germane amendments to and continue trying to get Republicans “on the board.” How Republicans handle those amendments in coming days — and whether they’ll motion to table them — could inspire some high drama and further escalate tension between the party leaders.

“It’s a complete abuse of power,” Johnson said. “Republicans are just neophytes when it comes to the legislative process. They’ve got enough votes. There should be a mature way to handle everything, one that doesn’t keep Mississippi taxpayers and voters in the dark. But they take shortcuts. They go into caucus meetings and rig votes, then they cut off debate on the floor. It’s an abuse of a great deal of power, and I don’t think that’s something Mississippians will appreciate in the long run.

“We’ll continue to expose them,” Johnson continued. “People are picking it up, and I take it as an indication that our strategy has been effective. Republicans don’t want to take another vote on Medicaid expansion. I wonder why that is. Then they’re talking only $80 million for hospitals? It just pisses people off. I hope they keep it up, I really do. I just don’t think they can see how bad they look.”

READ MORE‘Only in Mississippi’: House votes to create white-appointed court system for Blackest city in America

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.