Mississippi legislators clearly knew what they were doing when for the first time in the history of the state’s constitutional initiative process they approved an alternative to a citizen-generated initiative.
In spite of half-hearted protests to the contrary, the purpose of the legislative alternative was to confuse voters and defeat Initiative 42, which had been signed by nearly 200,000 Mississippi voters who want K-12 public schools fully funded under the law. It is to be voted on in the Nov. 3 general election.
The initiative requires a 60 percent majority to pass, and any alternative – especially one that sounds similar – would seriously impede those chances by splitting votes among people on the same side of the issue.
But just as the Legislature has an until-now-unused option of putting an alternative on the ballot, so do citizens have the option of challenging its wording. That’s what Adrian Shipman, a mother of two Oxford schoolchildren, did with the support of Better Schools, Better Jobs, the grassroots organization that led the petition drive for Initiative 42.
Shipman, likely much to legislative leaders’ surprise, succeeded. Last week, Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd ruled that the Legislature’s language was confusing and masked its true intent, and he ordered new language put on the ballot for the alternative. While both the citizen initiative and legislative alternative wording speak to funding schools, the alternative will now include the phrase “but not provide a mechanism to enforce that right.”
The judge was right: That speaks more clearly and accurately to the Legislature’s intent, which was to prevent passage of the citizen initiative from forcing lawmakers to follow the state law on school funding. Kidd’s ruling will allow for a more accurate gauge of public opinion on this issue.
Another feature of the state’s initiative law is that this circuit court ruling stands with no appeal allowed. Kidd’s wording is the final word.
The playing field is now more level. Even though any alternative will still siphon some votes from the original initiative, Better Schools, Better Jobs will now be able to better make its case to the voting public. And it’s a strong case – schools have been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008 because legislators refuse to follow the law governing funding of “adequate” schools.
Of course, the better course would have been for the Legislature to have left the ballot alone entirely, as it has done for every other citizen-driven initiative that has come along in the 20-plus years the law has existed. That they didn’t is all the evidence necessary that the leadership knows majority public sentiment favors following the law on school funding.