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Mitchell: Will 'Law and Order' Believers Adhere to Law?

It’s not unfair to say good government supports law and order, is it?
It’s not unfair to say that a hallmark of good government is that statutes, once passed, remain in effect until changed or repealed, is it?
But this is a problem for good government, law and order officials when it comes to funding K-12 education in this state.
The Legislature passed a law.
The Legislature is ignoring it.
And it’s not due to a lack of money or any emergency or crisis.
The Mississippi Legislature apparently just doesn’t want to the state to do what they said the state must do.
And that’s big deal — or should be — in a state where people strongly believe that laws — printed in black ink on white paper — say what they say and mean what they mean.
Think about it. When President Obama recently used/abused executive powers to help people illegally in America “come out of the shadows” and, a week or so later, announced his decision to change American policy toward the communists who rule Cuba, law and order people went apoplectic.
How can he ignore statutes? How can he bypass Congress?
Well, apply that same conversation to the Mississippi Adequate Education Act, first passed in 1997.
To be honest, 17 years ago were not suddenly overcome with affection for public schools. The school funding law was passed under pressure. States without balanced education finance plans were being sued and forced to act (raise taxes) by the federal government.
But those really were pretty good times for schools. A six-year plan of pay raises, totaling about 30 percent, was also enacted for K-12 teachers.
The fiscal future looked bright.
The act directed the state Department of Education to use formulas each year to determine total funding to be allocated by the Legislature. The Department of Education has done the math faithfully.
There is nothing over-the-top in the formulas. No taxes increases or radical “revenue enhancements” were part of the original legislation and none have been enacted since.
And there have been challenges. While it’s often lamented that the formulas have been fully funded only twice, in many other years it was because the state didn’t have the money. There was this thing called Katrina. And there was this thing called the Economic Recession of 2008.
But for this year — and under projections for the budget year starting in July 2015 — the formulas will not be funded again. The crucial difference is that the state does have the money. The state can afford to follow its law, but is choosing not to do so.
That’s a big deal. Or should be.
For this year, the money that could have funded the formulas completely was placed in a reserve “rainy day” fund. For the coming year, two leading Democrats, Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson and Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, point out that while 3 percent revenue growth is projected, the budget committee nor the governor propose full funding.
It’s possible this is a fit of legislative pique. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is representing several school district suing the state for back payments the districts contend they are owed under the law as passed.
Separately, a citizen petition by the Better Schools/Better Jobs coalition has been certified for the November ballot. It also demands funds be provided under the law as passed.
All of this leaves state elected officials with two choices.
With their law and order caps on, they could step up and ’fess up. They could say schools don’t need all that money, vote to amend the law, cancel the formulas and hope the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t sue.
But such a vote would be seen as against public schools, which still have some public support even if they don’t have much clout in the Capitol. Who would want to go into a re-election campaign having voted to show less support for schools, even if it’s the honest thing to do?
The alternative is to do nothing and hope voters don’t notices, but that’s risky, too. In November, voters may see the names of candidates seeking re-election right beside a ballot initiative demanding they adhere to the formulas they set.
Embarrassing? Yes. But lawmakers painted themselves into this corner. Are they people who support schools? Are they people who believe laws should be followed or changed? There’s plenty of time for assorted treachery and misdirection, but the fundamental question is clear: Y’all passed the law. What’s the right thing to do?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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