Why didn't legislators find the hidden voucher money?

posted 3/29/2019

When it was discovered that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had sneaked $2-million in additional private school voucher funding into an unrelated bill, many people asked why legislators didn't read the bill and catch the hidden language. Here's the answer...

First, it's important to understand that Mississippi legislators have no staff to assist in poring through the hundreds of bills presented to them in a legislative session. To make matters worse, the current leadership routinely delays the posting of legislation online, keeping bills from rank and file legislators and the public until the last possible minute. They use the conference process, where their meetings are not public (but should be), to hide their deliberations from voters - and from other legislators.

During this last week of the 2019 Legislative Session, dozens of conference reports were submitted, recommitted for further work, and resubmitted within a very short period of time, leaving legislators at the mercy of conferees who are understood to be obligated to fully reveal everything of significance in a conference report. It is a critical matter of trust among the members of the Legislature.

Reeves, Gunn, and conferees on SB 3049 violated this trust, though some of the conferees say they, too, were unaware of the voucher language. House Speaker Philip Gunn acknowledged that he did know about and supported the new language. He did not inform House conferees or representatives prior to the vote.

Here’s how the move to cheat - to mislead and circumvent the other members of the Legislature - unfolded ...

Conferees first submitted a one-page, “dummy” conference report, all zeros, no real legislation. Once an initial conference report is submitted and recommitted for further work, subsequent conference reports for that bill are not required to “lay over” on the calendar overnight or to be provided to the chamber in time for legislators to read them. Reeves and the Senate conferees for SB 3049 secretly inserted the voucher language in the second conference report for the bill while legislators were debating other legislation on the House and Senate floors. Within minutes, the conference report was presented for consideration in each chamber, and votes were called for before legislators had a chance to read the full report. According to one senator, the conference report was not accessible untl five minutes after the vote.

It isn’t unusual for resubmitted conference reports to be brought up without legislators having time to read the full report. That’s why it is understood among legislators that the person presenting the bill has an OBLIGATION to tell the membership everything significant that is in the report. The conferees on SB 3049 didn’t do that. It was intentional and was a massive violation of trust. It is the most deceitful thing I have witnessed in my 15 years watching this process.

- Nancy Loome, executive director