There’s a lot of truth in the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” It’s an admonition Mississippi lawmakers should remember in considering bills some think may address problems but which could, in fact, exacerbate them.
Parts of two current proposals, one dealing with school board elections and the other the state Public Service Commission, should either be defeated or at least drastically changed.
Senate Bill 2400, which has made it through the Senate Education Committee would, among other things, have all elected school board members run for election together for four-year terms at the same time the governor and other state and local officials are chosen, beginning in 2023.
Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, said the new date would guarantee more voter participation than the current system where. admittedly, there is low voter turnout.
What Blackwell’s proposal also would do, unless it is changed, is automatically eliminate staggered terms on school boards. To his credit, Blackwell has pledged to work with Sen. Briggs Hopson, a Vicksburg Republican who represents school boards as a lawyer, to consider staggered terms.
Unless a school district is a total failure, either through incompetency or malfeasance, the entire school board should not be replaced at one time. Better to bring on one or two new members at the time and keep experience on board. Also five- or six-year terms — which most school boards now have — are better than four-year terms. School board members are required to undergo training each year, and the longer they serve the more they learn.
As for more voter participation, that would be a good thing if all the voters were informed. But they wouldn’t be in a statewide election where the focus would be on high profile races. At least the few who show up at present school board elections know who they’re voting for.
On the other issue, bills in both the House and the Senate would put the Public Utilities Staff under the control of the elected Public Service Commission.
That’s the way it was until almost 30 years ago when two public service commissioners were convicted on federal charges of extorting money from utilities they regulated. In the wake of that scandal, the Legislature enacted reforms, including making the Public Utilities Staff independent of the commissioners. The staff now conducts investigations and collects information. The commission serves as a rule-making and quasi-judicial body but has no control over the staff.
Rep. Gary Staples, R-Laurel, and Sen. Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, have introduced legislation in their respective branches to put the staff back under the commissioners’ control on the grounds it would allow more efficiency and, in Carmichael’s words, “give customers more of a voice.”
Carmichael’s bill also would increase the number of public service commissioners from three to five, with four elected from each of the four congressional districts and one appointed by the governor. That’s the worst part of the proposed legislation. Presently the three commissioners come from the state’s three Supreme Court judicial districts which are better drawn geographically than the gerrymandered congressional districts. As Sierra Club President Louie Miller points out, the large Supreme Court districts, along with restrictions on PSC candidates campaign contributions, make candidates more beholden to customers than to those they regulate.
Miller and other opponents of the bills claim big utility interests are pushing the changes. The PSC has recently taken a hard line against Mississippi Power Company’s ill-fated Kemper County “clean coal” plant.
Miller notes that Carmichael’s son works for Mississippi Power’s parent, the Southern Company. Carmichael, who admits his son works there and who says his father retired from Mississippi Power, denies that has anything to do with his bill. Even if it doesn’t the legislation stills needs defeating.
Charles Dunagin is a veteran journalist with the Enterprise-Journal in McComb.