Recently former governor Ronnie Musgrove filed a lawsuit on behalf of 21 Mississippi school districts demanding the state pay 230 million dollars that the school districts claim they have been denied through shortfalls in MAEP funding. In response, Attorney General Jim Hood said the case is without merit and should be thrown out of court. Whichever side you are on there is one thing for certain, this is a case that will do little to mend the bad feelings and lack of trust and respect between state legislators and state educators. When all is said and done, even school districts not involved in the lawsuit may very well be left with a bad taste in their mouths. If the court rules in favor of the state, educators will no doubt feel they have been betrayed, and if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, a wedge will likely be driven between legislators and educators that will make future education funding even more difficult. This case should be about what is best for the children of Mississippi, but unfortunately that stands to get lost in debate and political theatrics when lawyers from both sides start butting heads in court. In the end it will not be about who is right or wrong, but who can present the most compelling case, and you can bet that money rather than children will be at the center of it all.
In question is the 2006 Mississippi law that says Mississippi’s school aid formula (MAEP) “shall” be fully funded. The 21 school districts filing suit claim the law mandates the state legislature fully fund K-12 education each year, but Hood argues that the 2006 law has no power to bind future legislatures. However, common sense would argue that if the law is nonbinding why have it? What good is a law or the funding formula it supports if legislators have the discretion to follow it or not? That is like saying people have the discretion as to whether or not they pay their taxes. When it comes to taxes, people “shall” follow the tax laws or face penalties and possible criminal action if they don’t. Why then shouldn’t state law makers be held to the same measure when “shall” is used in the 2006 MAEP law?
A recent statement from Jim Hood’s office read, “One session of elected legislators cannot dictate the discretionary budgeting and appropriation authority of a future session of elected legislators.” The MAEP law does just that, it dictates that MAEP “shall” be fully funded, but isn’t that what a law is supposed to do? Isn’t the purpose of a law to ensure equality of rights and protections for all people with the intent that those laws will remain binding for all subsequent years and generations unless amended or repealed? To imply that authority for budgeting and appropriations is discretionary and not binding for future legislative sessions is highly questionable. If what Attorney General Hood is saying is true, does that mean that all prior legislation is nonbinding for each new legislature or does it mean each new legislature has the discretion to pick and choose the laws they will support and uphold? Mr. Hood needs to be careful; his discretionary claim may actually open more worm holes for state legislators to wiggle through than he can possibly foresee.
The Attorney General says that the state’s argument in the case is based on a common sense principal. He writes, “If the principle did not exist, as the school districts’ ill-conceived mandatory appropriations theory here contemplates, the 2006 Legislature could have enacted a statute providing every subsequent legislature ‘shall never appropriate more than $1 to any school district’ in any given fiscal year.” Maybe the 2006 Legislature could have done that, but they didn’t because, as the Attorney General is well aware, there are checks and balances in place as protection against such arbitrary, capricious, and callously irresponsible legislation? Those checks and balances consist of a 174 state legislators in the senate and house, the governor, and the state’s citizens who would not tolerate such ridiculous appropriation legislation. Those same checks and balances were in place in 2006 when in an effort to quell the continuous bickering over MAEP funding, the state legislature, with approval of the governor and support of Mississippi citizens, passed a law requiring MAEP be fully funded each year. Of course, Mr. Hood argues that the law was not intended to bind or apply to future lawmakers, but hopefully, he is wrong, and the 2006 legislators had more integrity than to pass a law they never intended to follow. If not, there is a bigger issue here than simply the interpretation of the law. If there was never any intent to follow the law in subsequent years and the 2006 legislators did not intend to bind future legislative sessions to the law as Mr. Hood states, then the 2006 law as presented to the public and especially educators was nothing short of fraud. For Jim Hood to say the interpretation of the 2006 law by school districts is ill-conceived and a contradiction to the principal of common sense is ludicrous. If anything, Hood’s argument may wrongfully bring into question the integrity of the 2006 legislature as well as his own common sense.
©Jack Linton, October 11, 2014