JACKSON – Two state legislators have filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court contending the law that allows the governor to unilaterally make mid-year budget cuts is unconstitutional.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, and Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, are asking a chancellor to restore to the local school districts the about $20 million in cuts ordered by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in February and March.
The lawsuit, filed by Will Bardwell of the Southern Poverty Law Center for the two legislators, says that the cuts are part of the budget-making process and the state Supreme Court has stated that the Mississippi Constitution says “this is a power that can only be wielded by the Legislature.”
Bardwell contends the state law that gives the governor the authority to make cuts when revenue does not meet projections is a violation of the separation of powers clause of the Constitution.
Any mid-year budget cuts must be made by the legislative branch, the lawsuit contends.
Through spokesman Clay Chandler, Bryant disputed the conclusion of the lawsuit. He cited a 1983 opinion where the Supreme Court ruled that once the taxes are levied and appropriations are made by the Legislature, it is the duty of the executive to exercise “budget control” within the limits imposed on the governor by the Legislature.
Citing sluggish revenue collections, the governor has made four rounds of budget cuts this fiscal year totaling about $170 million.
In the last two rounds of cuts, Bryant included reductions to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is the formula used to provide state funds for the basic operation of local school districts. The lawsuit is asking that those cuts – totaling about $20 million – be restored.
In addition, the lawsuit asks that the law allowing the governor to make those cuts be declared unconstitutional and funding cuts to other state agencies during the last two rounds be restored.
“If is unconstitutional for MAEP, it is unconstitutional for everybody,” Bardwell explained.
In a statement on behalf of Bryant, Chandler said, “Rating agencies have said time and again that executive authority to balance a state’s budget is a primary determiner of credit worthiness.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center apparently holds Mississippi taxpayers in such low regard that it is willing to jeopardize the state’s financial health for a meaningless academic exercise. We will vigorously defend responsible budgeting policies from this ridiculous lawsuit.”
The lawsuit filed this week is the second dealing with the state’s system of funding education.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case filed by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove on behalf of 21 school districts. The lawsuit contends state law says the MAEP “shall” be fully funded. It has been underfunded $2.1 billion since 2008.