By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUSMississippi’s initiative process was created to be complicated. This year, that’s clearer than ever.
The Nov. 3 general election ballot includes two proposed constitutional amendments that deal with school funding. It’s a long section of the ballot, and one that is rife with the potential for voter confusion.
Initiative 42 got on the ballot because more than 100,000 registered voters signed petitions. It would require the state to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of public schools,” and would allow people to file a lawsuit in chancery court if funding falls short.
Measure 42-A was put on the ballot by legislators who have made clear the past several months that they’re trying to kill the citizen-led proposal. It would require the Legislature to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools without judicial enforcement.”
The similar wording is one potential point of confusion.
While 42 says the “state” has an obligation to schools, 42-A says “Legislature” is in charge. Translation: 42 would be a change and 42-A would keep things as they are now. The slightly different wording points to the potential role of the courts.
Several others states, including Texas and Arkansas, have been sued by people who contend legislators have fallen short in funding schools, especially in areas with high concentrations of poverty.
Supporters say Initiative 42 is an effort to force Mississippi to fund a stronger education system to improve the state’s long-term economic prospects. The current education budget formula has been in law since 1997, but it has been fully funded only two years.
Republican legislative leaders say 42 could put one judge in charge of a big chunk of the state budget. To amplify their message, they’re getting help from people who fear potential spending cuts in other state services, including a community college president who emailed colleagues last week and asked them to oppose 42.
Another potential point of confusion is in the voting process itself.
People are supposed to vote twice on the proposals. The first vote is either to accept one of the proposals, or reject them both. The second vote is to choose between 42 and 42-A.
Secretary of State Hosemann says even a voter who rejects both proposals in the first part gets to choose between 42 and 42-A in the second part. He says this gives people a voice in how their constitution would be amended, if it is.
People might not understand this two-part process, which means there could be a significant drop-off in votes from the first part to the second. That makes it more likely the proposals will fail.
For an initiative or alternative to be adopted, it needs two things:
— On the first part, it needs a majority vote on the question of accepting either the initiative or the alternative.
— On the second part, one proposal must receive at least 40 percent of the total number of votes cast in that day’s election. A big drop-off in votes hurts the odds of meeting that threshold.
The education funding proposals are on a sample ballot on the secretary of state’s website: http://1.usa.gov/1Km4cPi .
Mississippi created its initiative process more than 20 years ago as a way for people to try to amend the state constitution if they think legislators are ignoring an important issue. Legislators gave themselves an option to make things more complicated by putting an alternative dealing with the same subject onto the same ballot. This year, with 42 and 42-A, is the first time they’ve done that. It likely won’t be the last.