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BOBBY HARRISON: Legislature makes unusual constitutional argument




Granted, it is an arcane point, but the irony of the argument the legislative leadership – Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn – presented last week to the Mississippi Supreme Court cannot go without notice.

For most of this year, the legislative leadership has been arguing against the citizen-sponsored education funding initiative that will be on the ballot in November, primarily, they said, because it would give “one chancery judge in Hinds County” the authority to decide the level to fund local school districts.

Yet, before the Supreme Court last week, in arguing against a decision made by one Hinds County judge, the legislative leaders said, “There is no statute in Mississippi jurisprudence providing that the first court to address a matter should also be the last court to address it.”

That, of course, is what the people supporting the initiative, called 42 For Better Schools, have been saying all along about their citizen-sponsored proposal.

A Hinds County chancellor most likely would get the proverbial first shot at the legal apple on any school funding issues should the citizen-sponsored initiative pass, but his or her decision, no doubt, would be appealed to the nine-member Supreme Court.

What the legislative leadership was arguing before those nine Supreme Court justices last week is whether one Hinds County judge could change the ballot title for a legislative alternative to the citizen-sponsored initiative.

For the first time in the state’s history, the Legislature opted to place on the November ballot an alternative to the citizen-sponsored initiative. Under state law, the office of the attorney general is charged with converting the resolution passed by the Legislature into a 20-word title that will appear on the ballot for voters to accept or reject.

The attorney general is responsible for doing the same with the citizen-sponsored initiative.

An Oxford parent, Adrian Shipman, filed a legal challenge to the ballot title for the alternative. Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd agreed and ordered the ballot title for the alternate changed.

The legislative leadership claims that Shipman does not have standing to bring the challenge and that Kidd does not have the authority to change the wording.

The 42 For Better Schools group says Shipman was following the law passed by the Legislature in filing her challenge.

Incidentally, Attorney General Jim Hood has praised Kidd’s ruling.

The 42 For Better Schools group says under state law Kidd’s ruling is final.

Now this is a crucial distinction. The group maintains the law passed by the Legislature makes a Hinds County judge the final arbiter of what is a proper title for a citizen-sponsored initiative and for a legislative alternative.

Nobody, other than legislative leaders and others who are aiming for the defeat of the citizen-sponsored initiative, is maintaining that if the citizen-sponsored initiative is approved by the voters and some day in the future a lawsuit is brought against the state for the underfunding of the schools that the decision of the Hinds County judge would be final.

Perhaps there are legitimate reasons to oppose the initiative. One could choose to argue that the schools already receive too much money or that the money would be better spent in other areas of state government.

But it should be noted that the legislative leadership has not taken any steps to change current law that mandates a certain level of funding for the schools. The legislative leaders have not met that self-imposed mandate, but they have not tried to change it.

And, yes, Democrats who are not in power are trying to use education funding as a political wedge issue for the upcoming elections.

In a sense, Republicans have only themselves to blame. In 2006 every Republican legislator who was in office then – many of whom are in positions of leadership now – voted for a bill that reaffirmed the Legislature’s mandate to fully fund education. They voted for that mandate and gleefully attended a news conference where then-Gov. Haley Barbour signed the mandate into law.

But now, instead of talking about the pros and cons of that mandate, they only want to talk about a Hinds County judge.

» Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him atbobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 946-9931.



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