House member Denny does it again

by Bill Minor

As Ronald Regan would say, “There you go again,” Bill Denny.

Denny, an 83-year-old Republican House member from Jackson, once again has thrown a monkey wrench into the state legislative machinery, killing a worthwhile new law — then walking off with a “don’t blame me” shrug.

In the pas, Denny has gummed up the works having to do with voting. This time it’s a more serious legislative matter of saving lives.

Using a rare parliamentary trap in the final minutes of the 2014 Legislature the night of April 2, Denny derailed enactment of a major highway safety law barring motorists from texting while driving, similar to laws in 43 states. Gov. Phil Bryant was set to sign it as part of his package to clamp down on highway deaths.

Several days before, the House-Senate conference version of the texting measure won overwhelming approval in both chambers and was believed heading to the governor. Lawmakers knew the sine die (without date) adjournment of the 90-day session fixed by joint rules came on Sunday, April 6, so by custom, both chambers would stop all floor action four days before and head for home. In fact, senators had already said their goodbyes and left the Capitol building, leaving an itchy-footed bare majority of House members to clear the calendar.

Many House members had packed up and headed home that night when all floor action would end for the session. Denny, with 26 years of legislative experience, knew what rules could entrap unwary colleagues and skewer bills he targeted. Surprisingly, (so it seemed) Speaker Philip Gunn recognized Denny to make a motion, not inquiring that it was a motion to reconsider the bill’s previous passage. Rep. Robert Johnson, III (D-Natchez) the Transportation Committee chairman stoutly denied Denny’s claim that bill handlers had not made clear it applied to all drivers, not just teenagers. Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson), considered one of the ablest legislative veterans agreed with Johnson, “every one knew what the bill did…it’s right in the bill’s text.”

A reconsideration motion can be lethal, especially on the final day of a session when any bill left on the calendar under such a motion dies with lawmakers’ departure. Ordinarily, a reconsideration motion can’t be disposed of adversely the same day it is made. However, a century-old constitutional provision suspends that rule on the last session day. Though both chambers considered April 2 the final day, officially sine die wasn’t until April 6. That dilemma led to a muddled debate that found Rep. Ed Blackmon (D-Canton) a black caucus leader, making the spurious argument the bill could invite racial profiling.

Desoto Times Tribune
4/23/14