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Analysis: Ballot titles important in school funding fight

 

There’s a good reason that attorneys have committed hours to researching, writing and arguing about two brief items that will appear on the Mississippi ballot this November.

Both items deal with the state’s commitment to education funding. If one of them becomes part of the state constitution, it could shape the Legislature’s budget-writing process for decades to come.

That could affect spending not only for K-12 schools but also for universities, community colleges, health care, mental health programs, prisons and a wide variety of other state government services.

Initiative 42 landed on the ballot because people gathered more than 100,000 signatures from voters in parking lots, at football games and at other public gatherings. Its supporters — many of them Democrats — see it as a way to force legislators to fulfill a school funding formula that has been largely ignored, by both parties, since it was put into law in 1997.

Initiative 42-A also deals with school funding but in a slightly different way. It was put on the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature.

Mississippi has had a law for more than two decades that allows citizens to petition to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. The law also says legislators can put an alternative proposal on the ballot for any citizen-led proposal. This is the first time lawmakers have chosen to do so.

House and Senate leaders said they wanted to give voters another option that might prevent one judge in one county from ordering lawmakers to fund schools at a certain level. But, it turns out that a school funding lawsuit and a judicial order for a remedy might be a possibility under either initiative, according to what attorneys told the Mississippi Supreme Court last week.

So, where does all of this leave the voters? Confused, most likely.

Passing one initiative is difficult enough. When a similar proposal is right under it on the same ballot, the odds are even steeper.

Lawyers recently went before the state Supreme Court to argue about the initiatives’ ballot titles, which are supposed to summarize in 20 or fewer words what a proposed constitutional amendment would do.

Here’s the title for Initiative 42: “Should the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?”

The attorney general’s office originally wrote this title for 42-A: “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of effective free public schools without judicial enforcement?”

An Oxford parent who supports the citizen-led initiative filed a lawsuit challenging the 42-A title, saying it was too similar to the title for 42 and people could become confused. In response to that suit, Hinds County Circuit Judge rewrote the title of 42-A to say: “Should the Legislature establish and support effective schools, but not provide a mechanism to enforce that right?”

Legislative leaders are asking the Supreme Court to restore the title that the attorney general wrote for 42-A. Their attorney, Michael Wallace, told justices that Kidd tore a “gaping hole” in the ballot title for Initiative 42-A by removing the words “free” and “public.”

“Because it’s not true and impartial, it needs to be fixed,” Wallace said.

The day after attorneys argued before the Supreme Court, state House Democratic Leader Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto issued a fundraising appeal from his party’s Leadership PAC. He wrote that opponents of 42 “are working to hoodwink the voter” and, “They have placed a similar sounding but ultimately toothless alternative on the ballot to confuse voters.”

— EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

 

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