Mississippi legislators don’t personally write most of the legislation to which they put their names.
How could they? With some 3,000 bills introduced each year, that would be an average of about 20 bills per lawmaker. Even those with a law degree would have a hard time drafting that many proposed laws on their own.
Most times legislators introduce bills that have been written by other Mississippians — individuals, corporations, local governments or trade groups — that have asked their legislator to sponsor the measure. Or the lawmakers have an idea they want to push and they ask legislative staff to draft the legal wording for them.
But there’s another, more disconcerting way that legislation is increasingly getting into the hopper. Special interest groups, frequently from out of state, are pushing their national agendas by getting Mississippi lawmakers to go along with introducing the exact replicas of bills these groups have gotten enacted or are trying to get enacted in other states. Rather than attempting to go through Congress to get these ideas passed, they’re doing it a state at a time.
Mississippi is a dumping ground for such so-called “model bills.” According to a nationwide, computer-assisted analysis conducted by USA Today, Mississippi lawmakers have introduced at least 744 model bills since 2010, by far the most in the nation. Thankfully, as with the bulk of the home-grown legislation proposed each year, most of these model bills don’t make it into law. USA Today could only find 57 examples that got fully through the legislative process.
When they do, though, they can cause some serious mischief. One of the best examples of this occurred a decade ago when the legislature passed a law that allowed power companies to pay for future power plants by raising the current rates of their customers. Turns out this idea, which was a reversal of the state’s longstanding energy policy, was being pushed by the power industry around the country, particularly in the South. In Mississippi, it also had a powerful ally in the Governor’s Mansion, Haley Barbour, who before he was elected had been on the lobbying payroll of the energy industry.
It was this law that gave Mississippi Power Co., one of Barbour’s former clients, the go-ahead to launch its “clean coal” fiasco in Kemper County, which could have stuck about a third of this state with ridiculously high utility bills to pay for a multibillion-dollar power plant that should never have gotten past the drawing table. Thanks to relentless coverage by some in the media and other watchdogs, Mississippi Power’s customers only had to foot $840 million of the expenditures in the failed experiment, rather than $7.5 billion.
How can the flood of model bills be slowed down?
Several ideas have been floated.
The legislature could limit the number of bills introduced each year. It could raise the threshold required to pass general legislation from the current simple majority. It could allow general legislation to be introduced only every other year.
Some of these restrictions are already being used in various states.
Or legislators could be more diligent before bills, especially the non-routine ones, are put to a vote. They could ask the authors if anyone asked them to introduce the measure. They could use the Internet’s immense research capabilities to determine if the bill has been proposed in other states. They could look into campaign finance reports to see if the backers of the bill and their legislative sponsors have a financial connection.
Mississippi may be the recipient of a disproportionate number of these model bills because its lawmakers don’t ask enough questions.