charlie

It’s not clear what members of the Mississippi Legislature thought would happen after they voted to foil a citizen initiative to improve public school funding. It is clear that the Better Schools Better Jobs organization has decided not to wrinkle its collective brow, tear up and run away.

“On Jan. 13 &14, these lawmakers put their political careers ahead of our local school system. When the power brokers in Jackson told them to reject the citizen petition for a statewide vote on school funding, they fell right in line.”

That’s from a full-page newspaper ad the coalition purchased last week. In large print, the names of lawmakers who joined the subterfuge were listed on a mock report card and given F’s.

“They abandoned the people they represent to do the bidding of the political bosses.”

Stern words. The coalition has decided to be plainspoken. Its website (betterms.org) calls the Legislature’s action a “dirty trick.”

The shoe does fit.

Lawmakers who supported the ploy are playing every voter in the state for a sucker.

It may work. Who knows? Lots of people don’t pay attention.

The background requires understanding a little bit about two things — the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and the Mississippi Initiative and Referendum process.

MAEP is a collection of laws passed by the Legislature in 1997. It says lawmakers “shall” get data on K-12 enrollment from the Department of Education every year and “shall” use those numbers to calculate and provide “adequate” K-12 funds the next school year.

As has been reported innumerable times, only twice (in election years) have lawmakers provided dollars sufficient to meet the criteria they set.

In response to this, especially since the state has had sufficient cash in the bank to do what it said it would do, the citizen coalition arose last year to force action.

It took a tremendous amount of work, jumping with precision through dozens of legalistic hoops. They collected signatures of nearly 200,000 voters on an “initiative” that demands a “referendum” on the issue of school funding in November.

Back to the Legislature. Way back in 1992, it created the I&R process under which voters can amend the Constitution. Most states have such a process.

But the Legislature gave itself four options once an initiative becomes approved for the ballot. One and two are to ignore or endorse an initiative and let it go straight to the ballot. Three and four are to amend or reject the wording. In the latter two options, what goes to the ballot are rival options — the Legislature’s and the people’s — and the resulting ballot questions are so confusing there’s little chance for voters to sort them out. In the current contest, the Legislature acted for one reason and only one reason — to add a poison pill.

For its part, Better Schools Better Jobs insists it can mount a public education campaign between now and November that will expose the double-dealing.

Maybe. But it won’t be easy.

What makes this really weird is that what the initiative seeks to accomplish is to have a court order the Legislature to do what it already said it would do, has not done and has not taken back.

That’s made the comments of House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, on the amended language approved in both chambers bizarre. Talking to reporters after 64 of the 122 members of the House (later joined by 30 of the 52 members of the Senate) approved squelching the voter initiative, Gunn made a “separation of powers” argument. He said it’s just wrong to give a judge the authority to fund schools. Putting aside the fact that the Legislature has time and again chosen to have judges make state law in the context of redistricting, remember that the initiative does no such thing. It’s still up to the Legislature to define adequate funding as, again, the Legislature did in 1997. The only difference is that, if the initiative is approved, a court could order the state to keep its word.

That’s pretty much the same thing former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is seeking as attorney for several school boards who are suing the state — but they want “back pay” for their districts, too.

More money, of itself, won’t cure ailing schools. But it’s a start.

It comes down to this: The lawmakers trying to undermine the referendum don’t agree with MAEP but don’t want to risk being “against public schools,” especially in an election year.

It’s high-stakes political gamesmanship.

Guess who stands to lose? Those who need better schools to, uh, get better jobs.

(Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.)

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