Tort reform testing savvy of lawmakers

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Legislators are pulling out all the tricks this year over tort reform, providing us political junkies with a good show.

House Bill 1323 originated as a banking bill that addressed, among other things, court fines for lending institutions dealing with small loans. House Banking and Financial Services Chairman Danny Guice, R-Ocean Springs, passed the bill through his committee onto the House floor where it was passed and sent to the Senate.

In the Senate, however, a strange thing happened. Plan C shot into action.

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A little background is necessary here. Mississippians for Economic Progress (MFEP) is a pro-tort reform lobbying group made up of business associations from across Mississippi. Steve Browning, MFEP executive director, outlined a four-tiered approach &045; Plans A through D &045; to pass tort reform.

Plan A was a House bill nearly half the House members signed as co-authors. According to some legislators, the idea was to use House rules that allowed a simple majority vote of the full membership to pull a bill from a committee to get the bill to the House floor.

Plan A was blocked when House Speaker Billy McCoy changed the rules to require a two-thirds vote to pull a bill from committee.

Plan B was a Senate bill written by Senate Judiciary A Chairman Charlie Ross, R-Brandon. The comprehensive bill passed the Senate and then arrived in the House Judiciary A Committee, where Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, gutted it and then let committee members read it.

Browning never outlined Plans C and D. Plan D has been rumored to be a special session, though Gov. Haley Barbour has yet publicly to pay lip service to such an idea.

Last week, one can only assume Plan C was rolled out, for when HB1323 hit the Senate, it was double-referred to the Banking Committee and to Judiciary A, where Ross resides. Ross and his committee inserted tort reform language dealing with caps on non-economic damages, venue shopping and joinder suits.

Now the bill is set to return to the House where it will return to Guice’s committee. He has made no secret he plans to recommend it be accepted by the full House with Senate amendments. If the numbers hold true, the House membership would most likely pass the bill.

In short, Plan C looked like a big, huge success for tort reform proponents, save one little thing &045; McCoy still holds the power.

McCoy has said he will not recognize Guice to speak from the floor. By doing so, Guice will never get the chance to offer up HB1323 for consideration, meaning Plan C will fail and tort reform proponents will lose another one.

Some House members seem to think McCoy is just playing at the same level Ross, Guice and other tort reformers are playing. These members seem to think that Ross and Guice are trying to pull a fast one by playing loose with a banking bill.

Well, what do you expect? Of course they are. They are playing politics just like McCoy and Blackmon. Furthermore, it might be noted that McCoy &045; who was hammered during his last election by tort reform proponents &045; started the political shenanigans when he sought to change House rules by deciding which bills can be pulled from committee. He knew that the votes were there to get it out and pass it, and so he gave Blackmon a little more cover.

That’s all fair in politics. So is inserting tort reform language in a banking bill. And so, too, is McCoy’s decision not to recognize Guice.

All that said, the bottom line appears to be that the votes to pass tort reform are there. In essence, you have the minority holding the majority hostage.

Democracy is built on the strength of the majority. Politics, however, is not.

Sam R. Hall

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