During last year’s gubernatorial election, Republican candidate Tate Reeves could not find much positive to say about his Democratic opponent Jim Hood’s four terms as state attorney general.
But now Gov. Reeves is relying heavily on a 2009 official opinion from Hood’s AG office to ensure the public schools are funded during this unprecedented time in state history when the kindergarten through 12th grade education system has effectively no legislative appropriation.
The fact that this non-funding is occurring while local districts are struggling with decisions over if and when to start the school year in the midst of COVID-19 only exacerbates the uniqueness of the problem.
The Legislature in late June provided a $2.5 billion budget for education. But Reeves partially vetoed about $2.2 billion of the appropriation because the budget bill did not provide funds for the School Recognition Program, which provides bonuses for teachers and certified staff of top performing and improving school districts.
Before Reeves vetoed the bill, House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said the Legislature’s failure to fund the program was an oversight and that it would be fixed.
“We informed the governor’s staff that legislative clarification will easily fix this matter and that a veto was unnecessary,” Bennett said.
At that point, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the governor should have declared victory. But instead, Reeves decided “to grandstand” by partially vetoing the education budget, Bryan said. Coincidentally, the bulk of the $2.2 billion vetoed portion of the bill went for teacher salaries – all of their salaries not just the merit bonuses.
Reeves argued the veto was the best way to ensure the teachers received their merit pay bonuses, which as he points out were promised in earlier sessions.
Now almost a month into the new fiscal year, Reeves is citing the 2009 opinion from Hood to maintain he has the authority to provide funding on his own for the schools.
Hood, as Mississippi’s chief legal officer, maintained that while it is clear that the sole responsibility to appropriate state funds rests with the Legislature, there are certain services spelled out in the state Constitution that must be provided regardless of whether there is a legislative appropriation.
Indeed, the Constitution does mandate that there be public schools.
The question is at what level should the system be funded? Reeves reasoned, again based on the opinion of his former rival, that it should be funded at the level it received in the last legislative appropriation, which was in the 2019 session.
That is what Reeves said he is currently doing.
“Because the providing of funds for schools by the state is a constitutional issue, I have provided a letter…to make the transfer…There will be a transfer to the local school districts,” Reeves said.
The 2009 AG’s opinion was written in the middle of a monumental standoff between then-Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, and a Democratic Party-controlled House. Barbour wanted a tax imposed on the state’s hospitals. The House opposed the Barbour plan.
The disagreement on the hospital tax resulted in the inability to reach an overall budget accord on issues ranging from health care to law enforcement to education.
In 2009, the opinion was a legal theory but never was put into practice because of a late night budget agreement only hours before the clock struck midnight on July 1 to start a new fiscal year.
This year, Hood’s opinion is no longer a theory but the law of the land unless it is challenged in court and struck down by the judiciary.
In recent weeks the Legislature has been beset by a COVID-19 outbreak within its own ranks, further exacerbating an already difficult situation. But at some point the Legislature will return to deal with Reeves’ veto of the education budget. Legislators’ options then will include:
Doing nothing and hoping how the schools are currently being funded without a legislative appropriation will hold up if challenged in court.
Overriding the governor’s veto.
Overriding the governor’s veto and passing a separate bill to provide the bonuses for teachers.
Passing a new appropriation bill that includes the School Recognition Program.
If the Legislature does opt to override Reeves, it will mark the first time since 2002 for a governor’s veto to be overridden. Republican Govs. Barbour and Phil Bryant each served eight years each without having a veto overridden.
It could happen to Reeves in his first year in office. Of course, he would argue that the indignity of a veto override was worth it to ensure funding of the School Recognition Program.
But Bennett and others would argue it would have been funded without the veto and without Reeves having to depend on his old rival to ensure the funding of public education.
This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.