Bill increases transparency, but the fight is never finished
By LAYNE BRUCE
JACKSON – The first quarter was, as predicted, short of neither hills nor valleys for us at the Association. And it was another tough road for transparency in government.
We expected the legislative session to be relatively quiet as House and Senate members kept their eyes on re-election later this year rather than re-inventing the wheel at the Capitol.
Nevertheless, there were still challenges. An unexpected one was the resistance Senate Bill 2407 ran into in the House. The legislation was filed by Sen. Brice Wiggins of Jackson County and repealed the exemption publicly owned hospitals enjoyed from the Open Meetings Act.
One would have expected this bill to sail through to the Governor’s desk after it passed the Senate unanimously. The horror story of what happened to pensioners who once worked for Singing River Health System in Pascagoula is well documented: The Sun Herald in Biloxi and The Mississippi Press newspaper in Pascagoula had been telling the story for months.
But the bill suddenly stalled when it moved over to the House in February. It sat on Speaker Phillip Gunn’s desk waiting on a committee assignment until the shot clock nearly ran out. Only after some pressure was applied by MPA members and open government advocates was the bill feebly assigned to the House Committee on Health and Human Services.
There it was stripped of its power to enforce the Open Meetings Act at every public hospital. Instead, committee members caved to the formidable pressure of the Mississippi Hospital Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in Jackson.
And, again, only after the state press corps and, specifically, MPA member papers turned their unrelenting glare to the issue was parity restored to the bill and it passed on to the Governor for his signature.
It’s the kind of bill that everyone wants to take credit for when it comes to pass. That is, of course, only after the hospital association was either mollified or simply realized the snowball had grown into an avalanche.
The bill is by no means perfect. It still allows for too many exceptions to the rule of openness.
But we ended the session with a stronger Open Meetings Act than when we started.
And that has to be considered a win.
ELSEWHERE, WE suffered the indignity of the whims and wishes of a mercurial and nearly almighty Board of Trustees of the state Institutions of Higher Learning.
Though the IHL board meetings are open to the public, all you have to do is attend one to see they're really not interested in what the average taxpayer thinks – not unlike the trustees at some public hospitals.
Why should they be? Members are politically appointed for nine year terms.
Plenty of time to reshape the composition of university leadership to the liking of whomever happens to be governor at the time.
Speaking of which, IHL unceremoniously – and quite ham-handedly – gave Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones the boot under essentially the cover of darkness one recent Friday evening. But in this age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, plenty of folks noticed.
What followed was a protracted and disheartening skirmish that ultimately yielded no change of course for Jones.
More recently the IHL Board rubber stamped a budget cutting proposal from Delta State University president Bill LaForge that shutters the campus’ 83-year-old newspaper, The Delta Statement, and ends the small but scrappy journalism program at the school.
We feel for the university, its students and alumni. There are tangible and intangible consequences to the loss of a newspaper in any community, particularly ones that tend to be close-knit like school campuses. (The Daily Mississippian at Ole Miss, by the way, deserves tremendous kudos for its persistent and unswerving coverage of the Dan Jones' debacle.)
While the Delta State paper will supposedly live on as an online-only publication, the school is also losing its lone journalism professor.
I am fairly dispassionate (primarily irreverent) about most things. But about this I am not: A student newspaper is an invaluable teaching tool. Not just for the instruction of journalism, but for its ability to teach an appreciation for the written word, for curiosity and for taking an interest in the world around us.
Delta State’s leadership effectively declared such things are not cost effective, even after MPA expressed interest in providing some funding to keep the paper in print.
For its part, the IHL Board rubber-stamped LaForge’s recommended cuts, which touched many other programs aside from journalism and the newspaper.
There was no discussion.
Proving IHL does not interfere in school affairs... except when it does.
Layne Bruce is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association and a career newspaper professional. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.