In a recent power play, Speaker Gunn removed Representative Linda Whittington of Leflore County from the House Education Committee. Rep. Whittington, an expert on early childhood education, had served on that committee since she was elected in 2007.
Speaker Gunn’s reasoning was that he would, in effect, give Rep. Whittington a “promotion” to vice-chairman of the Tourism Committee, replacing the recently retired Tommy Woods of Marshall County.
It was not necessary to remove Rep. Whittington from the Education Committee to add her to the Tourism Committee. Rep. Whittington currently serves on six committees; a number of the Speaker’s allies serve on seven or more. In fact, the chairman of Tourism, Rep. Whittington’s new committee, serves on nine committees.
It is apparent the Speaker made the change because of his position on charter schools. During the last legislative session, charter school legislation was defeated in the Education Committee by a single vote. Rep. Whittington had a number of objections to the language in the bill and voted “No.” Rep. Charles Busby, named as Whittington’s replacement, was a sponsor of the bill and obviously a supporter.
By removing Rep. Whittington from the committee, Speaker Gunn is stacking the deck to assure passage of a charter school bill of his choosing… one of his stated objectives for this upcoming legislative session.
Regardless of their position on any particular piece of legislation, Speakers of the House have historically allowed the legislative process to work. Negotiations occur on virtually all bills before they are passed and become law. More often than not, such negotiations result in a better bill because they incorporate various perspectives. It is from this legislative crucible that the best legislative work is produced.
There is no apparent historical precedence for this recent action by the Speaker. It is true former Speakers have made committee re-assignments, but generally after consultation with the members involved and not to change the outcome of a committee vote. From what I understand, Rep. Whittington was not contacted, much less consulted about the change; she was notified by mail after the fact.
I do not believe the Speaker’s actions in this matter constitute business as usual. The Speaker of the House is not a statewide elective office. The Speaker is elected by members of the House and has only those powers afforded him by the House rules.
While the removal of Rep. Whittington from the Education Committee is technically within the rules, the Speaker’s use of his authority to achieve personal legislative goals can be considered an abuse of power given by fellow House members.
Will the Speaker play musical chairs every time he doesn’t get his way?
(Paul A. Tisdale is former Biloxi School Superintendent.)