January 14, 2013 8:36:29 AM
JACKSON -- It's the strength and the weakness of a citizen legislature -- many Mississippi lawmakers have other jobs back home. A strength, because it gives them knowledge of particular subjects they make laws on. A weakness, because it can make them look like they're pulling for their own self-interest when they're in Jackson.
"In most jobs your experience is considered an advantage," said Natalie Wood, a policy specialist with the National Council for State Legislatures. "But in legislatures, sometimes it can be considered a liability."
The two sides of that coin were on display on the first day of the 2013 Mississippi Legislature last week, as the House Insurance Committee considered proposals to regulate special deals cut by drug plans with chain and mail-order pharmacies.
The committee includes two pharmacists -- Republicans John Read of Gautier and Bobby Howell of Kilmichael. Read, according to his 2011 economic interest disclosure, works as a pharmacist for Fred's Super Dollar. Howell, according to his statement, is retired.
Committee members faced appeals from pharmacists, especially those who own independent drug stores, to force drug plan managers to deal with all pharmacies on equal terms. The state already has a law that's supposed to allow any drug store to participate in any insurance plan that the drug store accepts the terms of. But pharmacists say it's not working, as plan managers push beneficiaries toward exclusive deals with chains and mail-order pharmacies.
Also sitting in on the meeting was Rep. Forrest Hamilton, R-Olive Branch. A former drug store owner, he still works part-time as pharmacist at a psychiatric hospital. That means changes in how drug stores get paid wouldn't affect his income.
"I don't have a dog in this, but I understand both sides and both issues," Hamilton said.
He's all for restrictions on special deals, not because it would benefit his former colleagues, other independent pharmacists, but because he says it's good for the public.
"The No. 1 thing I think we need to be concerned about is the welfare of our constituents," Hamilton said.
Pharmacist-legislators are far from the only lawmakers who might have to vote on regulating their own profession. Many Mississippi legislators are retired, but others work as lawyers, real estate agents, farmers, accountants, ministers, homebuilders, teachers, even paramedics, undertakers, exterminators and optometrists.
For example, House Insurance Committee Chairman Gary Chism, R-Columbus, is an insurance agent. He has long wanted to make it harder to evade Mississippi's mandatory auto insurance law. That would benefit drivers who collide with others who are now uninsured. But it could also help Chism sell more auto insurance.
Wood, who works for NCSL's center for ethics and government , says Mississippi is not unusual.
"With citizen legislatures, but with all legislatures, it's an issue," she said. "Conflict of interest is the most common ethical dilemma that legislators face. Conflicts are not good or bad. It's how you handle them."
In Mississippi, both legislative rules and state ethics law say lawmakers shouldn't vote on issues in which they have a financial interest.
State ethics law says officeholders can't use their office to gain financial benefits for themselves, their families or their businesses. Officials can't vote to send money directly to their business, but it may be legal for them to take regulatory actions that benefit their industry in general.
But knowledge of an industry can benefit the public. In Mississippi, most legislative committees don't have staff members to research issues. Lawmakers often rely on lobbyists or government officials to explain proposals. Lawmakers with professional experience can test those claims against their own knowledge.