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BILL CRAWFORD — Legislature beating MAEP proponents in court

BILL CRAWFORD

BILL CRAWFORD

Legislature 2, MAEP proponents 0. 

 
That’s the score as judges bat around lawsuits surrounding efforts to get the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) fully funded.
 
Last week the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that nobody had standing to appeal Attorney General Jim Hood’s ballot title for Initiative 42A, the Legislature’s alternative to the citizen-sponsored Initiative 42. Proponents of Initiative 42, hoping to mandate full funding for MAEP, had gotten Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd to rewrite the title.
 
So, the 42A title goes back Hood’s language, “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of effective free public schools without judicial enforcement?” 
 
This will be on the November ballot along with the 42 title, “Should the State be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” Missing from this title, but included in the underlying amendment, is a provision that gives chancery courts authority to enforce the amendment.
 
Last month Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary ruled former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and allies were incorrect in believing state law already requires the Legislature to fully fund MAEP. He threw out their lawsuit based on Section 37-151-6 (MS Code, 1972), “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).”
 
Essentially, Singletary, a former legislator himself, ruled “shall” in this case doesn’t mean “shall.” 
 
“While this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the term ‘shall’ generally denotes a mandate, our Mississippi courts have allowed for exceptions to this mandatory interpretation of ‘shall’ where it ‘is necessary to carry out the purpose of the legislature, effect justice, secure public or private rights, or avoid absurdity.” 
 
Singletary based his ruling on another statute that reads, “In any year in which the MAEP is not fully funded,” the Legislature will decide how to allocate funds. He ruled this statute took precedence over the other.
 
The legal language in question comes from Senate Bill 2604, authored in 2006 by then Sen. Mike Chaney (now Insurance Commissioner). It sets forth three sections in a row regarding MAEP funding. The first is the “shall fully fund” paragraph. The second is a lengthy paragraph detailing how much the Legislature “shall” appropriate in fiscal years 2007, 2008, and 2009 “if sufficient funds are not available to fully fund” MAEP. The third section, the one Singletary relied upon, simply tells how to allocate funds in years MAEP is not fully funded. 
 
One logical reading of these sections, that keeps them from contradicting each other, is the Legislature intended to fully fund MAEP, but provided for phase-in funding over four years, and the allocation paragraph simply references those specific phase-in years. 
 
Musgrove is asking Singletary to reconsider his ruling, so the 2 – 0 score could change.
 
Of course the real contest is in the hands of voters. If they pass Initiative 42, giving courts oversight of school funding, there will be lots more for judges to bat around.
 
 » Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian (crawfolk@gmail.com)

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