Return of the MS Conservative Democrat?

“[A]ny species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion.” 

― Daniel Quinn



Some time ago, I read a story about wolves being reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park. The wolf is native the Yellowstone region and had functioned as a top predator keeping the elk population in the area in check. Wolves in the area had been hunted to the point of effective extinction back in the 1920’s due to their negative image with farmers and even some nature lovers in the area. In the subsequent years, coyotes somewhat took the place of wolves as a top predator, but as their population exploded due to the lack of wolf competition the antelope population became decimated. The antelope were smaller and could be hunted by the coyotes as opposed to the elk whose size left them without a predator. The elk population exploded over the years which led to the overgrazing of open grassland to the detriment of other grass eating animals. Thus, the idea was that taking away the wolves had led to many unintended consequences due to the lack of balance in the ecosystem. By reintroducing small numbers of wolves, they would hopefully thrive due to the readily available food source, grow in population, and the ecosystem could once again have the balance it needed. I use this example to frame something which has been on my mind for most of the day, the demise of the Mississippi Conservative Democrat and the consequences of life without them filling their niche in our political ecosystem.

Many of us voted in August in one of the two party primaries (either Democratic or Republican). On election night many of these races were decided for good as there was no opponent running from the opposing party leaving no need for a November general election in certain offices. In my home county, this was the case for many of our county races with the Democratic candidate running without a Republican challenger. This type of situation is nothing new in my county or in my region of northeastern Mississippi. In fact, during the 1980’s and 1990’s a Republican candidate was virtually unheard of for any local office. If there were a Republican challenger, it was viewed as simply a formality with them only receiving a nominal amount of votes during those years. To those who are young or unfamiliar with political history in Mississippi, this might seem odd. The question might be asked, “Isn’t northeastern Mississippi regarded as being quite conservative?” The answer would, of course, be “Yes, we are very conservative.” But, the very nature of such a question assumes a monopoly on conservative beliefs and principles by the Republican Party in Mississippi and nothing could historically be further from the truth in northeastern Mississippi and for much of the state.

If one were to poll the candidates in my home county and the surrounding candidates who ran for office and won on the Democratic ticket without Republican opposition this August, I would bet as much money as I could lay my hands on that you would find them to be very conservative by most measures. Pro-life: without question. Pro-2nd Amendment: very much so. Against gay marriage: 100%. For prayer in schools: emphatically yes. Against illegal immigration: definitely. Believe in God: You better believe it. The list could go on and on for almost any social cause one might want to mention. Yes, as far as their political and public stance on the issues (and I have no reason to doubt their private views differing from their public positions), these Democratic elected officeholders are God fearing, hunting, fishing, pro-USA, red blooded, conservative Americans! Yet, in my area, we do not think twice or question why they run as Democrats. It is taken for granted here that one can be all of these things and still run as a Democrat. They are in every sense of the word conservative…Democrats!

Only with the election of Kirk Fordice and especially with the election of Haley Barbour some years later, did Mississippi on the state level begin having Republicans run serious races and get elected. Prior to this, Mississippians would very often go to the polls and vote for two Republican senators, a Republican representative, and certainly a Republican candidate for president on national races. Those same voters might then vote for a slate of Democrats for every race from governor on down. The conventional wisdom at the time seemed to be what the “national level” Democratic Party said, did, or represented had absolutely nothing to do with what our “state and local” Democratic Party said, did, or represented. You would often hear it exclaimed with pride, “I vote for the man and not for the party!” Those making such statements proved it by choosing a mixture of candidates from both parties on their ballot whom they believed would represent them well. But, thanks to some key issues (such as the proposed change to the state flag and an association with huge, sometimes frivolous lawsuit payouts) and some extremely shrewd political moves by Haley Barbour and those allied with him, Republicans won the perception game in Mississippi by somewhat linking the state level Democratic Party with the national party in many Mississippians’ minds. Seemingly overnight, the formerly Democratic conservative candidates became Republican conservative candidates (often the very same person) and, by and large, the average voter continued to vote as they saw fit with little notice.

Yes, Mississippians are conservative and most especially socially conservative (against abortion, against gun control, for prayer in schools, etc.) and to a much lesser extent economically conservative (capital gains tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, cuts to government spending, etc.) In my limited experience at least, the people in my area simply saw these newly elected Republican office holders as being from the same conservative mold as the any others they had voted for in the past with the only difference being whether they had a (D) or an (R) by their name. However, the key point to remember is that to your average Mississippian, “conservative” can literally be translated as “social conservative” in practical terms. Mississippians care about the social issues which might sometimes cross over a bit into economic issues such as working for a living and not “drawing a check” (the Bible does say that if you will not work then you should not eat) when you are able bodied. Mississippians on average care much, much less about giving a huge tax cut, cutting government spending, etc. than these important social, often spiritual, issues. Tax cuts do not cause Mississippians to put signs in their yards, but the killing of unborn children will. Cuts to government size or the introduction of vouchers to give tax dollars to private schools is not going to cause a Mississippian to necessarily tell his friends and neighbors about a candidate, but a threat to his or her right to have a gun will cause even the most meek Mississippian to give an impassioned plea for or against a candidate. I believe this emphatically and it is the cornerstone of the point I am moving toward.

This all has moved quite positively for the state Republican Party. It has seen huge growth in the number of elected officials. Our state house, led for years by extremely socially conservative Democratic Speakers of the House, is now Republican as well as the state senate and the governor’s office. With this success, many of those running for open state offices in Mississippi (not county offices) are more than likely going to run as a Republican (all things being equal). By virtue of the fact that many of these candidates and certainly many of those voting for them are stronger social conservatives than economic conservatives, it has been up until this point entirely likely that you could find a Republican candidate for the state house of representatives who might proclaim his support for public schools who would rail against the big internet/phone companies for their shoddy treatment of Mississippi’s largely rural customers, and would proclaim that we had to preserve the state employees’ retirement fund benefits. Teachers and educators would vote for the candidate in droves, because they too saw the social issues of primary importance and the candidate agreed with them on schools as well. Yet, no one blinked twice at the fact he was a Republican since the same candidate had been a lifetime sportsman, was a member of the NRA, was a deacon at his church, and supported a constitutional amendment against abortion. Ask almost anyone in his district and they would tell you that he was 110% conservative and, of course, he was a Republican. Most would think you were foolish for even asking the question. Now once he was in the Mississippi House of Representatives, he might vote for a Speaker of the House, like our current Speaker, who was not nearly as supportive of public schools and might differ on other economic issues, but this mattered little to most people. Neither the Speaker nor the new Representative would accuse the other of not being conservative for these minor differences and certainly would not dream of telling the other that they were not a “real” Republican. They would support each other as fellow conservatives, much less Republicans, naturally would.

However, this recipe for success which has served the state Republican Party so very well for so many years, may be showing signs of weakness. It seems that perhaps the political ecosystem of Mississippi politics on the state level may be slightly “out of balance” much as Yellowstone’s animal ecosystem found itself. Gov. Barbour was certainly smart enough politically (of course I am not doubting his sincerity) to at least appear to support our public schools stating that he expected the Mississippi Adequate Education Plan to be fully funded every year after he signed its full funding in 2007. Our current governor, during his election went by almost the exact same playbook, stating regularly his support of our public schools. But, then there is our current Lt. Governor and current Speaker of the House. Lt. Gov. Reeves and Speaker Gunn seem almost every day to be more vocal in their disdain for public schools in general and in particular their adequate funding. Even our state budget hearings which are led by these leaders and their Republican committee chairmen, have become almost venomous in their open hostility of public schools and public school supporters, especially in regard to ballot Initiative 42 and their willingness to lose almost all pretence of civility in pushing against its passage. These individuals have also made direct threats and attacks to the future of our Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), the fund people have worked for years and paid into expecting the promised benefits. They have been extremely vocal in support for charter schools and private schools with funds taken directly from public schools. Speaker Gunn, Lt. Gov. Reeves, and many of their committee chairmen have argued for huge tax cuts and with the same breathe, out of the other side of their mouth are saying there is not enough money for education funding without slashing the budget and cutting other agencies. Yes, to these “new breed” of state level Mississippi Republicans led by Gunn and Reeves there is no middle ground and no pretending anymore, public schools are on the outs.

Now, if you do not think this is having an effect, ask yourself how many of your Republican elected officials who once would have felt comfortable speaking out about their support of public schools have suddenly gone silent. It is almost as if you can hear the crickets in whatever room these traditional public school allies have chosen to hide themselves. I mean even if these traditional public school supporting Republicans for example opposed Initiative 42, since perhaps they believe one or more of the outlandish claims about it, they should still be able to publicly say they support our public schools or maybe support adequate funding, right? This would be especially true if you heard these supportive comments often from these individuals in the not too distant past. But, I certainly have not heard many of their voices lately. No, it seems the “orthodox” view of this new state level “Gunn/Reeves Republican Party” does not allow such support and an opinion different from their own. It would seem that there has been a shift. No longer, in the eyes of this leadership, can there be any middle ground on public schools and public school funding. The zeal the leadership exhibits does not reference the social and spiritual issues of the day many of us care so much about (abortion, marriage, our faith coming under attack).  Instead, their real zeal seems to come out in reference to cutting public education and delivering on tax cuts. You either toe the party line (which they have decided is now openly anti-public education) or you are not a Republican. Yes, under the new regime, if one of these state level Republican office holders were to openly voice their support for public school funding or even simply compliment the public schools and those who work in them in any meaningful, substantive way, they would literally run the risk of being “excommunicated” from the party establishment. The risk of no help with campaign funds and potentially no endorsements from state level party leadership would be in the future for any such Republican elected official who would say such words of support. Perhaps, they might even be surprised when a “real” Republican challenger, whose opinions matched the leadership’s, suddenly pops up funded by the establishment just in time for the next election.

The question is what are the thousands of teachers, administration, staff, retirees, parents/grandparents of public schools students, and others who are alienated by this open hostility toward public schools going to do now? Considering the current zeal, hardball politics, pitting of state agencies against the schools, and all of the other venom being spewed toward our public education system in Mississippi, what will these supporters of schools do if the Republican orthodox stance MUST include criticism, cuts, and opposition to our public schools. Will they simply roll over and say “Well, shucks, I may have devoted my whole life to the public education of our young people, but I guess that can just fade away. After all, these guys are in charge.” I personally do not see this happening. No, with the way Speaker Gunn, Lt. Gov. Reeves, and various chairmen have overplayed their hand with such hostility, I cannot see those good men and women who for the most pure motives have always supported our schools suddenly deciding to just “take it” and for all intents and purposes just “shut up.” The only question is whether someone within the Republican establishment will attempt to “rein in” these extremists or is something more radical going to have to take place in regards to a political shift in our state? If such “reining in” of the lieutenant governor and speaker does not take place, there is the possibility that a splinter subgroup of pro-school Mississippi Republicans could emerge. However, there is a serious problem with such a pro-education splinter group of Republican candidates having any possibility of success with the leadership and out of state lobbying groups allied with their interests funding alternative “orthodox” anti-education candidates.

I will close with the final possibility and one which up until this point in our political scene would have seemed impossible:  Could the political environment our state finally be primed for the return of the almost-extinct Mississippi Conservative Democrat? Is the “ecosystem” within our state government so out of balance that the return of a once highly, successful species might once again prove successful? We know, if you are a pro-schools candidate, it does not appear the Mississippi Republican Party, under present leadership, will be very supportive or welcoming to you. However, in contrast, we know that in some areas of the state there are still a few Democrat elected officials who are conservative in their pro life, pro 2nd amendment, pro traditional marriage, and other stances most of us would consider the very definition of conservatism. These Democrats sponsor bills and vote based upon these conservative stances without any apparent backlash or stabbing comments from their leadership. These same Democrats are free to openly support our public schools in seeming contrast to the expression of opinions our state Republican Party leadership would allow in our present environment. It seems these Democrats are able to function in their party, have the support of their leadership, and still vote as they see fit in Mississippi. Have some of this extreme brand of state Republican leadership created a situation where the emergence and proliferation of successful Mississippi Conservative Democratic candidates is a real possibility? Or will something be done to curb the leadership’s anti-public education rhetoric before such a phenomena emerges. Ironically, the reintroduction of Conservative Democrats to the Mississippi landscape would bring something which, as a conservative, I would like to see, competition. Yes, competition with a real alternative for those who are strong in their faith, but still disagree with many of the stances of the Republican leadership whether it be in regards to schools or other economic issues. From a political and historical perspective, it will be quite interesting to see how this plays out. Unfortunately, it is our children, who deserve the opportunities only a quality public education can provide to every Mississippi child, who will suffer until the political environment once again achieves the balance it has lost in regards to the support of public education in our state political ecosystem.

– Clint Stroupe

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Throwing money, schools keep getting worse, & other Miss. myths…

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

[Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962]”

– John F. Kennedy

Perhaps you have heard these points being made by friends and fellow Mississippians:

  1. “Our schools used to do so much better than today. Our schools have gotten so much worse than they were during the 1980’s and 1990’s. We did not spend nearly as much money then, but the schools were better than today.”
  2. “All we do is give the schools more and more money. There seems to be no end in sight. The schools want more money, always more money, and the state gives more, but the results just keep getting worse. When is enough going to be enough?”

Personally, I feel that these two interconnected points have been sold very well to many of our general public in Mississippi. From backhanded comments all day on the radio to vague insinuations by some politicians (both oddly without mentioning any hard data), many average Mississippians have come to accept as truth that schools have gotten worse in spite of the fact that we “throw more and more money” at them every year. Much greater research and many more facts can be used to explore this topic, but I will attempt to use some readily available and basic data points to see if the impressions still seem truthful in the light of day.

In regards to our schools being better years ago during the 1980’s and 1990’s, I do not think there is any data to support this being true. However, it is really impossible to tell in any objective way. If you remember, during those years there was no statewide testing program of any real relevance. It was often up to the school district itself to choose what types of achievement tests, if any, they gave. When some tests were required usually assessing basic skills perhaps once in lower elementary , once in upper elementary, once in middle school, and once before graduation (remember the Functional Literacy Exam), the information was certainly not put out to the public the way it is today. We have become so accustomed to knowing the testing “report card” of our local schools and districts that it is sometimes difficult to imagine, but this type of data for the public to review was something virtually nonexistent during those years. Up until No Child Left Behind was passed by the federal government and states began testing students in every district with a yearly, common, identical assessment given throughout the state which all students of a particular grade level took, there was no real means to compare schools within Mississippi to one another or schools in Mississippi to those in other states.

The few common assessments which did exist between Mississippi and other states were things like the ACT. However, the ACT didn’t really give a very accurate picture of how the school was doing at educating its students since it was taken voluntarily by only the students who chose to sign up independently. Thus, at one school 25% of its students might have taken the ACT while at another 75% might have taken the ACT. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, which was created to compare achievement across state lines over time and to assess whether things were improving in different geographic areas, did not exist in its present form until 2000 when it began providing accommodations for students with disabilities. However, we do have data from the earlier form of NAEP from 1990-2000. But, both then and now, NAEP is not given to all schools within a state. With NAEP, only certain schools from each state are selected to take the assessment in a particular year. Naturally with the vast difference in school performance across the state, we can easily see that depending upon which school or district was chosen to take NAEP in a particular year, there could be vast differences in the scores reported for the state. Even with all of these limitations, we will attempt to use this data to see what clues it gives us as to the state of Mississippi education in years past compared to today.

Just glancing online for data, the average ACT score in Mississippi in 1989 was 15.9 (http://www.ihl.state.ms.us/urc/downloads/State%20of%20Education%20in%20Mississippi%201993.pdf). The average ACT score for 2012 in Mississippi was 18.7 (http://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2012/states.html). The average ACT score for 2014 was 19 (http://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2014/states.html).  Even with this type of observed growth in ACT scores in Mississippi between 1989 and 2014 (+3.1 points on the composite average), the national average had also grown with a national average of 18.6 in 1989, a national average of 21.1 in 2012, and a national average of 21 in 2014. Using this highly limited data for comparison, our average ACT scores in Mississippi increased by 3.1 points and the national average increased by only 2.4 points, seeming to not only indicate growth in Mississippi ACT composite scores, but growth which exceeded that of the national averages. Using this data, it seems to paint a picture of Mississippi ACT test takers in 1989 who seemed less capable of achieving the higher scores which students in 2012 and 2014 were able to achieve, seeming to indicate that educational achievement at least among those taking the ACT was not as high during that earliest  year. However, it is important to point out yet again, that this is not really worth much as a comparison since there were no assessments given to all students across the board as would be needed for a real conclusion to be drawn.

An examination of NAEP state & national results over time seems to show the same trend. Without listing every testing of NAEP during the years from 1990 until the present, I can state that in every subject area that I reviewed and at every grade level assessed, Mississippi has only risen in regards to NAEP scores over the years (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/). An example would be 4th grade mathematics in which 45% of Mississippi students taking the test scored above Basic level in 2000 versus 74% in 2013. In fact, NAEP seems to indicate quite significant gains over time with the oldest scores (some dating back to the 1990’s in Mississippi) being very much lower than the latest scores (at least among the Mississippi schools chosen to take NAEP which might be different every year). In fact, Mississippi rose 20 scale score points for the 4th grade mathematics assessment over those years while the national average only went up 17 points. Again, not a perfect comparison, but one which seems to indicate Mississippi students achieved less on these assessments the further back in time you go, Mississippi students have on average achieved more as we progressed to the present, and our growth has outpaced the national average growth (even though we still trail behind the overall national average scores).

After the passage of NCLB, Mississippi developed its MCT tests for elementary and middle school students and its SATP tests for certain high school subject areas. As much as I find it a shame that in some parts of the country NCLB led to some administrators and teachers being overly preoccupied with only teaching “the test” with some classrooms becoming little more than test prep and test taking skills workshops, I do think that common testing under NCLB gave us comparable data that allowed us to make the first real attempts at assessing student achievement across district and state lines. This data was publicly available and gave us a picture of what effect classroom instruction and other factors were having at creating objective gains in student achievement. In the days prior to NCLB mandated testing, prior to 2001, there was no way for parents or the public to have a remote clue as to what students were learning or not learning at their local school in comparison to other schools. Parents during those days looked at a student’s report card, asked the student questions, spoke with teachers, and that was about it. Those without children had even fewer ways of gauging student achievement. Who was to say whether or not the teacher in a student’s 7th grade English class had the class writing narrative papers for their “A” grades while down the road at another school the same grade and subject teacher might have the students watching movies every day for the entire period and giving “A” grades on fill in the blank worksheets? There was no way for the public to tell how well a school was or was not doing in any objective way. During those years, people on the outside might make fun of a country school like the one I attended, thinking we learned very little and simply “played school” because of our rural setting in comparison to schools with more urban surroundings. The larger schools in larger towns, almost everyone assumed, gave far superior educations to our small country schools. Only after state testing did it come to light that many of the rural schools were very competitive in the performance their students gave on these common statewide assessments in comparison to many of our surrounding urban schools. This is not to say that all rural schools did better than all urban schools (in other areas the situation was flipped), but at least there was now an objective way to attempt to assess performance & compare schools for the first time. Through most of my childhood which occurred in the 1980’s & 1990’s, the more sports programs a school offered and how many of your students were ticketed on the weekend for drinking were both just as likely to be the basis people in the community used to decide whether things were “good” or “bad” in the school as any other. Stories of how students behaved, records for the athletic teams, and overall “gut feelings” were often the closest thing to data the community had to make its judgments.

I made this detailed point to illustrate that education in Mississippi overall does seem to be lacking in many ways today in that we still trail national averages. However, the main reason this present view seems to contrast so strongly with our impression of school performance in the years before 2001 and the passage of NCLB is that in those days we were all blissfully ignorant of exactly how far behind our students really were in comparison to national averages.  This is just a fact, our students for a variety of reasons were very much behind the national averages once real data became available.  But, I would contend based upon what limited data we do have from the 1980’s and 1990’s that public education in Mississippi through hard work has been able to produce gains in achievement almost every year. I think most parents would agree that what their children learn today in the 5th and 6th grade in Mississippi schools is more in line with what we learned in the 7th and 8th (conservatively) a few decades ago.  If this observation is true and our students have much more rigorous classes in contrast to their parents at the same grade level, it certainly follows that students are learning more at an earlier age now than in years past (thus indicating improvement in academic achievement in our schools as students are still passing and advancing to the next grade). The only difference between the 1980’s/1990’s and now, I believe, is that with statewide common testing and the public distribution of data on school performance, we finally had to take our “rose colored glasses” off and see our educational performance at each school in Mississippi for what it was. What we saw was very often lacking in regards to our neighboring states. I would compare it to how some of our parents and certainly our grandparents did not think they were poor when they were children even though they often walked barefoot, had no running water, had frost on their bed in the winter, and read by a “coal oil” lamp. They did not know they were themselves poor or how poor their community and state was in comparison to others until after they grew older and were exposed to how other people in other locales lived. Our parents were happy and often satisfied, but they were indeed behind economically in comparison. I would contend that most average people during the 1980’s and 1990’s were reasonably happy and satisfied with their local school.  Yet, once data was available it demonstrated that as a state we trailed much of the nation and more than likely had for years.

Then comes the point as to whether we are spending more and more on education each year in Mississippi with no results to show for it. On this point, we do have some hard, relevant data to compare. According to the 2015 census data, Mississippi spends $8,130 per child in our public school system (http://www.deseretnews.com/top/2663/47/Mississippi-See-which-states-spend-the-most-least-per-pupil-on-public-education.html) using the most recent available data. This amount places Mississippi third from the bottom (47th out of 50) in our spending per student. Every other single state in the South spends more money on education per student than Mississippi. This begs the question, is it simply a coincidence that Mississippi is also at or near the bottom in comparison to how other state’s students score on average? It would be impossible to say for sure that extremely low money spent on education would necessarily equal low performance. However, as an analogy, if I told you that people in Tennessee drank far more contaminants and toxins in their water than any other state in the South and more than almost every other state in the US, this would probably alarm most Tennesseans.   Then, if I followed up that information with the fact that Tennessee spends far and away less money per citizen on pollution regulation and water quality improvements than any other state in the South and was only three from the bottom in the whole United States, what might be the logical conclusion?  Would common sense not figuratively “scream out” that Tennessee’s lack of spending in comparison to other states on pollution regulation and clean water would more than likely be a main cause of the excessive pollution in their drinking water compared to other states. How many of us would expect that Tennessee residents and voters would demand at the next election or even before then that funding be increased to clean up their polluted water knowing that such spending would be needed to make improvements? I will leave it up to you to carry that same logic over to our public education system and its funding in Mississippi.

Yes, in spite of all the talk radio and rhetoric from people who have attempted to convince us that money is literally being wasted right and left (and I am not saying there are not areas where efficiency could improve), Mississippi spends less per pupil than almost anywhere in the United States and certainly less than any other state in the South! But, here is where the real insult to injury is, this was not a situation that was isolated to one year in 2015 and it was not a situation of a state continually trying to do what it could to improve funding. Naturally, those opposing adequate funding contend money is being “thrown” at education so logically more money is being spent every year per child, right?  No, not by any stretch.  Oddly our state has consistently cut our public school funding in the years leading up to 2015, according to the data. The following is a listing of Mississippi’s spending per pupil for the past several years. The data shows for Mississippi our average spending was: 2014 – $8,130, 2013 – $8,130, 2012 – $8,301, 2011 – $8,298, 2010 – $8,666, 2009 – $8,704, and 2008 – $8,636 (http://www.governing.com/gov-data/education-data/state-education-spending-per-pupil-data.html). Yes, Mississippi, under some of our present leaders who have the apparent nerve to make comments as if money is being thrown at education, has without any significant exception consistently spent less per child on education every year since 2008! Now again, not to beat the Tennessee and the imaginary polluted water analogy to death, but what if in spite of the bottom in the United States performance in regards to toxins and pollutants in their drinking water and the fact that they were at or near the bottom in regards to their spending per citizen on keeping water clean, I told you that Tennessee for the next six year has decided the best way to make the water cleaner is to cut their spending on clean water even further each and every year? Would anyone even pretend to believe that quality of water would then improve? Would almost everyone not expect water quality would naturally go down even further as less resources were available to tackle the problem?

Again, the data clearly indicates Mississippi does not “throw money” at education. Heck, Mississippi is virtually dead last in regards to our spending on education and has cut that spending per child almost each and every year since 2008. Now, again, I am not saying there are not places in the state that waste money and spend it inefficiently within our schools. Our system is operated by humans and as such is not perfect. But, the data does not lie, Mississippi students are not being provided with the funding that children in almost every other state receive to insure an adequate education.  On the other hand, what might be questionable in regards to potential lies are politicians who know these figures, who have themselves slashed into per pupil spending each year for almost a decade, and who still attempt to insinuate to the public that we are just putting money into schools hand over fist. Some of these same politicians on the state level then introduce bills to start charter schools, often run by “for profit” companies. The same politicians then quietly take campaign contributions from pro-charter school organizations from out of state. Yes, if you want to know what the major difference was in the 1980’s and 1990’s verses today in regards to our public school system, the answer might be that we had not yet generated this present “strain” of state office holders who instead of supporting public education seem bent on slamming it with every comment and move.

Basically, in 1997, back when we by and large all still supported our public schools in Mississippi whether Democrat or Republican, except for a small few in parts of the state who had always sent their children to private schools, the state passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) which used a mathematical formula to assess the bare minimum of dollars which needed to be spent by the state per student to provide a merely “adequate” education. But, this program has only been funded twice. The last time was in 2007, when Gov. Barbour and the legislature both bragged that fully funding MAEP was the single largest thing that could be done to help our state economically. Gov. Barbour stated that it should be funded every year from then onward. However, in that amount of time our state has elected a different breed of Republican politician to several top spots. These different breed of Republicans come more from that Mississippi private school tradition and have also become quite accustomed to taking money from national charter lobbying groups. They are the ones who have pushed these cuts and they are the ones, along with help from certain airwave media, constantly putting forth all of these innuendos that Mississippi is wasting money on a bloated education system. That is why Initiative 42 came about and why in my opinion they oppose it so much. It is all about money and having it available to spend on other things whether it is a pet developers project or a tax cut rather than anything associated with the public school system, which for whatever reason they seem to resent.

I certainly believe we must have more funding or our public school system has no chance of improving. In fact, if cuts continue as they have for the past several years, our facilities and our quality of education will inevitably go down as districts have spent almost all of their reserves to make up for the shortfall and cuts in state spending. The gains garnered by hard work will transform into the losses in student achievement some politicians falsely insinuate have already occurred.  It is my firm belief that they want to starve our public school system of the funds it needs to provide a quality education. Then when things finally reach a breaking point and scores inevitably drop, these same politicians will point the finger and say, “See I told you they don’t do a good job. We need more support for charter schools and vouchers for private ones.” Money will then flow to those schools that serve only a minority of our students and will come directly from the public school system which educates “all” of our students. You will not see the poorest child you know whose family depends on the school bus for transportation going to the charter school. The non-verbal child with autism will not be attending the charter school. The child whose parents are on drugs will not be using a voucher to go to the private school.  For those children and their needs it takes vastly more than the amount we spend on average per student to educate them, often much more than the average of a little over $8,000. Thus, the public schools will be left to educate the children who cost the most to educate and have the most needs with much less money than they ever had in the past. All the while the students who do not need as much money for services will take their funding vouchers to the charter or private school down the road where their parents will drop them off every morning.  Yet, are all of these children not equally deserving of an education and an opportunity at a better future?  The company who operates the charter or private school will laugh all the way to the bank as they educate the “higher profit margin” students without any extra needs and with professional parents at home during normal hours to help them with their studies for much less than the $8,000 provided from the state.  Those schools will then naturally kick part of their profits back to those same politicians via political donations and those politicians will continue the cycle of downing the public schools while pushing the privatized alternatives.  You see a public school district does not help much to buy campaign ads since it can’t make contributions to politicians, but for a charter or private school company wishing to donate to a candidate or a PAC which support a candidate, well the sky is the limit for them. This is the future that some of our state politicians’ actions will inevitably produce. The sad thing is that many good and well meaning people will help them to do it simply because they are not being told the facts and the truth. I hope that I have presented this information in a way that shows where the actual facts lie and where just rhetoric lies. Our public school system is in real danger. It can and must continually improve, but it cannot be starved out of existence and must have adequate funding to survive and thrive.

  • Clint Stroupe

Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part III: The Return of Adequate Funding?

Like Sands Through the Hourglass…..The Saga of the Mississippi Legislature & Initiative 42…Part III

-A long-winded narrative on what you might have missed in regards to Initiative 42.-

…continued from Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part II: The Empire Strikes Back

Meanwhile, Mississippi also has a public records law on the books. This is a “sunshine” law designed to allow the public to see what goes on behind the scenes in government with the idea that such “sunshine” prevents “shady” things from occurring in our state government (http://ballotpedia.org/Mississippi_Public_Records_Act). It has been used by journalists in the past to solicit documents and communications by many public officials throughout the state to better inform the people of what exactly is occurring as our elected officials engage in their business. Apparently following a hunch or some sort of information, a public records request was filed asking for copies of emails and communications between Speaker of the House Gunn and Lt. Governor Reeves (who have been very vocal opposing Initiative 42) and lobbyists in relation to Initiative 42 or the “alternative” 42A (http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com/story/news/education/2015/08/31/initiative-email-requests/71493600/). Rather than say there were no communications with lobbyists or to share this information (which apparently all other elected officials in the state would be required to do) voluntarily, they both cited a law which said that the legislature did not have to follow the public records law as it applied to virtually all other elected officials (http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2015/sep/01/reeves-gunn-refuse-reveal-emails-about-initiatives/). This exemption was, of course, written into the law by the legislature itself when it passed it. Now did the Speaker Gunn or Lt. Gov. Reeves ever state such communications did not exist? No. Were Speaker Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves able to release these communications with lobbyists in spite of the law and they chose to keep them secret? Yes, the law does not seem to require them to keep the documents secret. So Basically, Speaker Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves chose to shield themselves from having to provide any communications between themselves and lobbyists in regards to Initiative 42 for what reasons we can only imagine. So we will never know what types of efforts and communications have been made with lobbyist or other interests inside and outside of the state with two of our top elected officials.

This effort to shield emails which might or might not discuss details of how to defeat Initiative 42, ironically, was shortly followed by directions from the Mississippi Department of Education to local school districts to make sure nothing on their websites or done during school hours was in support of or might be perceived as being in support of Initiative 42. The Mississippi Department of Education stated that the cause for sending out the directives to school districts was that “lawmakers” and the state auditor had contacted MDE about it (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2015/09/02/initiative-42-superintendent-district-websites/71612458/). Now certainly no one is advocating anyone on the tax payers payroll using their time to advocate political things, no matter the merits of the political stance being taken. However, one would have to assume that if any emails existed between the Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor with lobbyists about how to defeat Initiative 42, that they were naturally not done using the state government email system or during normal working hours, since logically the same standard would apply. But, then again, we will never have to answer that question will we? Since Mr. Gunn and Mr. Reeves have chosen to shroud their emails in the veil, where the legislature can exempt itself from sharing such communications with the public, such answers can again only be speculated about using once again our own common sense and imagination.

Now, we are at the point where the state ballot with its final wording has been released for the proposed Initiative 42 and the legislature’s “alternative” 42A (http://www.sos.ms.gov/Elections-Voting/Documents/FINAL%20SAMPLE%20BALLOT%20-%202015%20General%20Election.pdf). The wording is nothing if not extremely confusing with the following question after the before mentioned “analysis”:

VOTE FOR APPROVAL OF EITHER,

OR AGAINST BOTH:

_ FOR APPROVAL OF EITHER Initiative Measure No. 42 OR

Alternative Measure No. 42 A

_ AGAINST BOTH Initiative Measure No.

42 AND Alternative Measure No. 42 A

AND

VOTE FOR ONE:

_ FOR Initiative Measure No. 42

_ FOR Alternative Measure No. 42 A

Now assuming you wanted to support Initiative 42 how do you think you would mark the ballot? The answer is that you would need to mark the “For Approval of Either…” choice on the first question and then proceed to mark “For Initiative Measure No. 42” on the second question. You see by inserting the “alternative” 42A, they now had a way to make you have to vote correctly twice in order to pass the initiative. Now, surely no one would read the way that is worded and think for one minute that the ballot was confusing? I mean you know that your grandmother when she goes to vote would have no issue at all with it? No, certainly not! I mean there really hasn’t been any effort to confuse the voters and operate behind the scenes by the legislative leaders (with or without the input of lobbyist such as those with deep pockets who support charter schools)? No, no, certainly that has not been the pattern we have seen up until this point. As if, our legislative leaders who have opposed public schools at seemingly every turn, who have aligned themselves with out of state charter school groups and lobbyists who make donations to our in-state candidates, who for the first time in state history created an “alternative” to a ballot initiative with an “almost” identical name/description only without a mechanism to enforce funding, who fought having this flat out fact pointed out on the ballot in relation to their “alternative,” who without apparent precedence communicated directly with the Legislative Budget Office in regards to the fiscal analysis to appear on the ballot resulting in a vastly different wording, who do not deny having communications with the out of state lobbyists in regards to efforts to defeat Initiative 42 and yet seek to hide such communications from you the tax payer and citizen, who bragged on one hand about growth revenues being up for years to come and tax cuts could easily occur in the BILLIONS of dollars, who turned right around and demanded that state agencies show them who among their employees would have to be fired should Initiative 42 pass which a fraction of the dollars in some of their proposed tax cut reductions, surely those good politicians would have not done anything unethical to help defeat this measure and CERTAINLY have not tried to further confuse with this ballot design.

All sarcasm aside, the extra obstacle introduced by the legislature inserting these two questions on the ballot measure might not seem like that big a deal. You might be thinking, okay some will get confused, but surely a majority would still not get mixed up and vote as they intended. It’s the United States, we are a democracy, and the majority rules therefore no matter what tricks they try to do with the ballot the majority who vote for Initiative 42 or “alternative” 42A will prevail. But, you need to look at the law and what it says about this vote to see the sheer coldness of the political calculation which our legislative leaders put into play when they created “alternative” 42A and adding these two questions on the ballot. You see the law says that more than 40% of the TOTAL number of votes cast during the ENTIRE ELECTION must vote for an initiative for it to pass. Naturally, some people will not vote at all on the question since perhaps they have no interest. But, let’s imagine 100,000 (a low number so the math is easier) show up to vote in total. Now let’s say that 85% of those actually answer the first question about whether they support EITHER amendment one way or the other. So now we have 85,000 people who actually answer the first question. Of those, let’s just say that 70% vote “YES” to say they wish to vote for one of the two amendments. That now leaves a pool of 59,500 voters who are planning on voting on the next question as to which amendment to pass (either 42 or the legislatures 42A). Out of that 59,500, at least 40,001 need to choose Initiative 42 instead of 42A (since it has to be greater than 40% of the total number of voters). Yes, in that scenario a total of 68% of the voters participating in the election would have to choose Initiative 42 or “alternative” 42A (this math doesn’t even assume any voter drop-off, if curious of what that looks like and an even more in depth examination check out the following: http://www.rethinkms.org/2015/01/13/legislatures-alternative-language-school-funding-initiative/). Now, perhaps it is slightly dawning on you why things have happened like they have. Does it make a little more sense why the legislature would suddenly decide to exercise this unused portion of the initiative law to create a legislative “alternative” to be put on the ballot which does absolutely nothing but leave things as they presently are with the legislature controlling the entire education budget. Did the math just happen to work out as a pleasant by product of creating an “alternative” which individuals felt should be on the ballot yet had the unintentional effect of making Initiative 42 much, much harder to pass mathematically when the votes would ultimately be counted? Who can know the mind of another? However, it does seem to very conveniently and precisely work out that way, regardless of intent. If this were planned, it is unfortunate to say, but this is literally like something we would expect to read about in one of the less developed countries of the world lacking our democratic traditions.

I do hope that you support our schools and Initiative 42 and not support “alternative” 42(A)gainst. I for one like a reasonable debate of the issues on any political subject. If I am wrong in what I have observed and attempted to document, I sincerely hope to see the error of my ways. But, what I have attempted to base my opinions on are the facts that I am able to see and which are a matter of public record. Actions and dealings with the design to halt discussion, hush debate, and confuse voters at seemingly every turn are actions which I am naturally against. These efforts make me feel as if someone is trying to control me and as if they do not really want me to understand things for myself. When I hear of hard working state employees being made needlessly to literally fear for their jobs and their families financial security by threatening budget cuts which cannot possibly be necessary according to the same politicians statements in reference to tax cuts, it just makes me slightly sick to my stomach. Perhaps, I am just a little too stubborn or have a little too much of a rebellious streak, but I resent people who basically are treating me as if I cannot be trusted to make the proper decision and I must be “tricked” or scared with untruths into not supporting something because they do not like it. I desire to think for myself, but I suppose that was a trait I picked up in my public school where everyone was encouraged to think for themselves instead of simply an elite few.

In closing, our public schools are an invaluable asset to the future of our democracy, where everyone has a shot at improving their future and reaching their full potential. We escaped Europe with its history of education and opportunity both being based upon what class you were born into and whether or not your parents could afford a decent education for you as a child. A free public education is without question something we expect as a right and desire to be guaranteed in our country and state. Unfortunately, there are those who would take away this right and attempt to dress up a step back in freedom as a step forward. Our schools simply need the money, just this adequate amount of money which the legislature long ago spelled out as being the adequate amount needed, to operate. The people taking control of their state government through the initiative process and bypassing the politicians, the lobbyists, and the special interests are the best hope we have of making sure this will happen. My writing was lengthy to say the least. However, I believe, the things which have occurred up until this point are important to be understood. I also believe that it is most important to remember that the end of this narrative has not yet been written and, if we are willing to take action, the ending does not have to be a bad one. I ask that you consider helping your local public school district by doing whatever you can and opposing those who would seek to quite literally “starve” our public school system out of existence.

-Clint Stroupe

Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part II: The Empire Strikes Back

Like Sands Through the Hourglass…..The Saga of the Mississippi Legislature & Initiative 42…Part II

-A (lengthy) narrative on what you might have missed in regards to Initiative 42.-

…continued from Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part I: A New Hope

Now you might be thinking, okay so people would now be able to debate this proposed Initiative 42 and decide on Election Day whether to pass it or not, just like we did leading up to the marriage amendment, the personhood amendment, and all of the other amendment proposals ever placed on the ballot. But, this is where things started taking a really odd turn. You see there was a little part of the law allowing these initiatives to be put on the ballot which allows the legislature to put an “alternative” on the ballot beside the other measure. Now, in all the years and all the many initiatives we have had on the ballot, this option had never been done by the legislature. It had never been done for any initiative made by the people. To say having two “competing” measures of any sort being on the same ballot in Mississippi is rare would be a bit of an understatement. According to Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman, “This is the first time since 1817, and we became a state 200 years ago, that we have competing legislative amendments” (http://ballotpedia.org/Mississippi_Public_School_Support_Amendments,_Initiative_42_and_Alternative_42_(2015)). Yes, the legislature moved in a manner which it had never done before and nothing even remotely similar had occurred since 1817 when Mississippi was in the process of being admitted to the United States. However, many in the legislative leadership, while supporting state funding for so-called charter schools (http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2013/apr/03/mississippi-house-passes-charter-schools-bill/), did not like this language forcing the state to provide for an adequate education in our public school districts. One of the key things in Initiative 42 which they did not like was the provision allowing our elected Chancery Court judges to provide injunctive relief should the legislature (even with the new amendment) still choose not to adequately fund our schools. Injunctive relief is the process by which the court, in the case of an injustice, requires someone to either do or not do a particular thing (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/injunction). Many of us are familiar with injunctive relief, it is what you see on courtroom dramas when the judge might state, “I am granting an injunction against the defendant that his bank cannot foreclose on the plaintiff’s house.” Injunctive relief is by definition requiring someone to do or not do something and this would be the “teeth” of the law giving the judicial branch the means to check whether the legislative branch was following the law.

In January of 2015, the leadership in the legislature decided to introduce THEIR “alternative” (http://www.sunherald.com/2015/01/13/6015467_mississippi-house-passes-alternative.html?rh=1). This “alternative” to be listed by the very similarly titled “42A” would not mention the word “adequate” (remember adequate levels of funding had already been defined by the MAEP formula) and would certainly not have any mention of the courts being able to enforce anything about funding. So the leadership placed this very similar sounding, yet very different measure to be put on the ballot (one law with the ability to be enforced and another without the ability to be enforced). The “alternative” 42A does nothing more than leave things 100% as they currently are. It is meaningless as far as its effect and repeats existing law. Thus, it’s effect would be the exact same legally and in relation to education funding as a vote of “NO” on the original initiative. Why go through all the trouble of this unprecedented move to put this “alternative” on the ballot at all? Well, unfortunately this will all become crystal clear toward the end of this document.

At this time, some saw this as simply a way to confuse voters with two amendments which seemed so similar listed side by side on the same ballot which seemed entirely likely to result in many people meaning to vote for one and mistakenly voting for the other which has ALMOST the same name and very similar language. Some of these same people thought that this seemed like an effort to just make sure Initiative 42 had a roadblock in its path to getting the required majority needed for passage.

In March of 2015, all of the leadership of the legislature and the governor began to seemingly see who could top the other in regards to the biggest tax cut proposal for 2016 (http://taxfoundation.org/blog/competing-tax-plans-advance-mississippi). Yes, things were looking so good for the state financially that the state could easily afford to cut taxes. The only real question of any of these leaders was how big the cut should be. Gov. Bryant introduced a plan for 2016 to cut taxes by more than $78.7 million. Lt. Gov. Reeves, not to be outdone, went ahead and spelled out a plan to phase in cuts for the next five to ten years. When fully implemented, Lt. Gov. Reeves boasted that it would result in $382 million in tax reduction (and naturally revenue to the state) per year! But, it would be Speaker of the House Gunn who would blow them all out of the water with their “meager” in comparison tax cuts. Speaker Gunn proposed that we could get rid of our state income tax entirely for a grand total of more than $1.81 BILLION per year, once fully phased in! Speaker Gunn used projections saying that revenue was projected to do nothing, but grow for the next fourteen years so his massive cuts to be implemented each and every year before the final amount of 1.81 BILLION by 2030 would not have much effect at all. There would be no mention of any budget cuts to the various state departments which do so much good and certainly no mention of any need for job eliminations to the hard working state employees in our institutions of higher learning, highway patrol, prisons, roads, etc. (You will see shortly why this lack of any cuts to achieve these large tax and revenue reductions is quite important).

Yes, many in the legislative leadership had already howled at the lack of money they said would be needed should Initiative 42 be passed, implying cuts or tax increases would be needed. This was part of the “need” to introduce the “alternative” 42A to counteract this strain on the budget.. But, lo and behold, the same leadership were now a couple of months later saying things were great and much more massive dollar amounts could easily come out of the state budget for tax cuts! Pardon my example, but this sort of puts me in the mind of a father who tells the children that he can’t afford to buy them shoes for school or to give offering on Sunday, but then Monday morning is trying to get all of his friends to load up with him and go to the casino this coming weekend. The “good” father tells them that he has a pocket full of money and it’s time to enjoy some grand times! What type names would you have for such a “good” father? Soon, we would see this double-talk taken to even further heights.

Thus in April, a parent in north Mississippi ended up carrying the new “alternative” measure to court saying that it at least needed to have a clear title which pointed out the key difference in that there was no way to enforce this “alternative” 42A since it had removed the ability to bring it before a judge should the legislature continue to ignore the law. The idea was that without a title description pointing out this difference, people would likely not notice because the two proposals would look almost identical yet have very different effects. At first a judge agreed and said the title should reflect this lack on an enforcement mechanism in 42A (http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2015/apr/02/how-one-mom-beat-legislature-schools-funding/). But, the legislature using the services of at least one attorney charging over $60,000 (http://www.sunherald.com/2015/09/08/6404195_state-hired-attorney-to-battle.html?rh=1) appealed that ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court, because they felt it was very important for the title to not mention the lack of an enforcement mechanism. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legislature and the title language mentioning the lack of an enforcement mechanism could be removed.   What reasoning did the court give for overturning the lower judge’s ruling to change the title? The court said that it had never been given authority in state law or the state constitution to exercise any jurisdiction over that process (https://courts.ms.gov/Images/Opinions/CO105465.pdf). Sound familiar? Why did the legislature not want the ballot to inform the voters that no one at all could review or enforce the legislatures funding or lack thereof in reference to “alternative” 42A? Everyone universally agreed 42A lacked any way to legally enforce its call for an “effective” education system, so why not come out and say that in the title? We will have to use whatever combination of common sense and imagination to reason that out.

Just in case you thought my earlier analogy of the father talking out of both sides of his mouth was not entirely applicable, let us fast forward a mere four months from the massive tax cut proposals of the governor, lieutenant governor, and the speaker of the house in March to July of 2015. That would be when leadership in the house suddenly demanded, “state agency leaders to draft plans for major cuts to their budgets, in the event a ballot initiative to force full funding of the state’s education formula passes in November” (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2015/07/07/agency-cuts-education/29814897/). Yes, you read that correctly. The same leaders who told us a few months earlier that the state of Mississippi was “walking in high cotton” and needed to reap the fruits of the harvest via tax cuts on such a massive percentage scale they would almost be unheard of in any state of the union suddenly decided times were hard and we were in the poor house to fund education. The Department of Public Safety (including the Highway Patrol), the Department of Corrections, and all departments were instructed to write out detailed plans by the end of the month. According to the article, “A memo sent to all agencies — except the Department of Education and Medicaid — told them to identify the number of employees that would have to be “terminated, laid-off or furloughed” to make the cuts, the need to increase fees or charges for services and by how much and any projected “reduction in services” (fewer vaccinations, fewer patrolmen on the road, etc.) Strangely, in March no such discussions, plans, or memos were needed when tax cuts taking BILLIONS away from revenue were thrown around like it was Christmas. But, it no doubt made good reading in the next day’s paper for all the employees and their families of those various state agencies who now had a pain in the pit of their stomach as they thought about how they would pay their bills or their mortgage, if they lost their jobs. No doubt as those department heads had to send down to their individual county divisions asking for listings of jobs that could be eliminated, there was one topic and one topic only discussed at lunch time. But, I guess it is just different depending on whether the money is being spent for public schools or being boasted about in tax cuts, although I must have missed that day in math class.

So in the meantime, there is a part of state government called the Legislative Budget Office which is to issue a fiscal analysis of proposed initiatives which will appear on the ballot. The fiscal analysis would give a summary of how much the proposal would cost and other financial details. Of course, being that it was the “Legislative” Budget Office many expected that such a summary would not be very favorable in its wording and perhaps reflecting the negative view of Initiative 42 by some in the legislature. When the initial version of this was released in March, it might have seemed by some to be a little slanted, but most agreed it was factual (http://www.msparentscampaign.org/component/content/article?id=1314). This analysis read as follows:

“The cost to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) statutory formula portion of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget request as submitted by the Department of Education totals $271,136,036 above the Fiscal Year 2015 funding level. Initiative 42 amends Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution to require that the legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools and also authorizes the chancery courts to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief. The Legislature would need to appropriate an additional $271,136,036 above the Fiscal Year 2015 level for the support of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to meet the statutory formula for Fiscal Year 2016. Budget projections for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program for the Fiscal Years 2017 through 2020 reflect average additional formula increases of approximately $33 million annually.”

Now fast-forward to August when the actual wording of the fiscal analysis as it would appear on the November election ballot was being finalized. The legislative leadership including chief Initiative 42 opponents Lt. Gov. Reeves & Speaker Gunn, by accounts for the first time, decided to become directly involved in the Legislative Budget Office’s wording for their analysis (http://djournal.com/news/initiative-fiscal-analysis-changed-after-legislative-input/). Members who helped write the new version openly admitted this involvement in the revision. Thus, they, you might say, “tweeked,” it just a wee little bit and it now reads:

Because this proposed amendment shifts funding decisions from the Legislature to the court system, it is impossible to provide a specific fiscal impact of Initiative 42. If the court system, acting under the new authority granted by Initiative 42, required K-12 Public Education to be funded at the amount called for by the statutory Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the Legislature would need to appropriate an additional $201,031,129 above the Fiscal Year 2016 budgeted amount. Fiscal Year 2016 revenues are not adequate to support this funding increase without the Legislature having to cut agency budgets or identify new sources of revenue (such as fees or tax increase) to comply with the court’s dictate.”

Now remember this is supposedly a purely factual, fiscal (financial) analysis and not an opinion, description, or editorial on the initiative. The new and vastly altered language seemed to reflect talking points used in the previous few weeks by those opposed to the amendment and particularly those in the legislative leadership. By many, it seemed at this point that things were clearly being manipulated by those in the legislative leadership who not only wanted to make sure that they retained their ability to not fund schools at the adequate level and spend what money they did not use for the prescribed adequate education funding on things such as tax breaks to corporations or any other preferred project and/or tax cut they had rather direct it towards.

(continued in the next post: Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part III: The Return of Adequate Funding? )

Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part I: A New Hope

Like Sands Through the Hourglass…..The Saga of the Mississippi Legislature & Initiative 42

-A (lengthy) narrative on what you might have missed in regards to Initiative 42.-

Okay, time for a recap. In case you have missed any episodes up until this point, perhaps it’s time for a little synopsis of what exactly is going on with this thing called Initiative 42 which will be on the ballot in November. I will attempt to give a guide to where we are, in my opinion, up until this point and what is occurring in case you missed some episodes or are just thinking about tuning in for the first time. But, first I think you have no choice other than to give some background…

Mississippi has a process where everyday citizens of the state can place things on the ballot to be added to our state constitution. The item being placed on the ballot is called an initiative. States introduced laws allowing citizens to do this originally in order to bypass the bureaucracy of legislatures with special interests and other hindrances which might prevent good things which the people supported from actually making it into law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiatives_and_referendums_in_the_United_States). In the past, Mississippi has had several of these initiatives put on the ballot when enough citizens signed a petition to place them there. You might remember the initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman (passed by Mississippi voters although later rendered to no effect by a majority decision of our unelected federal Supreme Court justices), then there was the initiative to define “personhood” as beginning at conception (which did not meet the required majority of “yes” votes to be put into the state constitution), and the sportsmen amendment placed on the ballot (which passed with ease and is now part of our state constitution guaranteeing us all the right to hunt and fish). So the initiative process places these measures from the citizens on the ballot and with enough votes the proposed initiative becomes part of the state constitution. The good part about it being in the constitution instead of the just in regular state law is that it would take a two-thirds supermajority effort by the legislature and another vote by the people to “kill” or overturn the new amendment (http://www.iandrinstitute.org/New%20IRI%20Website%20Info/I&R%20Research%20and%20History/I&R%20at%20the%20Statewide%20Level/Constitution%20and%20Statutes/Mississippi.pdf). If the change were only in the regular state code of laws instead of the state constitution, then all it would take is a majority of the legislature after the new measure was passed to then overturn it. The Mississippi Constitution, unlike the federal constitution, has many laws and provisions written directly into the document and has also been completely rewritten no less than four times (most recently in 1890). Thus, changes and additions to our state constitution as initiatives are proposed to do are far from uncommon (remember we now have a right to hunt and fish directly written into our state constitution).

Now keep in mind that in the 1997 the Mississippi Legislature passed a law creating something called MAEP which gave a formula for how much state money is given to districts per child to operate schools in an “adequate” fashion (http://www.msparentscampaign.org/education-funding/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34). The state passed this law largely to make sure that all children could have a decent and acceptable public school education in their district, nothing extravagant, just adequate. You see the Mississippi Constitution did not have a provision in it saying that the public education system had to be of any certain quality, much less having to be given the certain amount of money it would naturally take to maintain a quality system (Article 8, Section 201, http://www.sos.ms.gov/Education-Publications/Documents/Downloads/Mississippi_Constitution.pdf). The Mississippi Constitution passed in 1890 told the legislature to just operate under whatever “conditions and limitations” the legislature might decide. Quite literally, as long as the legislature gave $1.00 to operate a public school system everything was fine no matter how much money the state actually took in via taxes. So now, it seemed at the time, that we had a law in place that would provide an at least adequate education all across the state and this money would be supplied by the state instead of coming just from your county property taxes.

The only thing was, that even after the MAEP law was written by the legislature, passed by both houses, and signed by the governor, the politicians for one reason or another kept finding reasons not to fund it almost each and every year. In fact, in only two years in roughly eighteen has the law actually been followed to give our local districts this adequate amount of funding, the last time being under Gov. Haley Barbour in the election year of 2007 (http://msbusiness.com/2013/12/bobby-harrison-earlier-maep-funding-promises-havent-kept/). Of course, children are still being educated even without the money that the MAEP law requires as local school districts attempt to scrounge and scrape together funds, put off needed repairs or purchases, and/or raise their county property taxes to get enough money to operate at all or at an acceptable level (depending on the local property values).

If you are with me thus far, since 1997 we have a state law on the books saying how much money is to be given to districts per child which is the minimum needed for them to simply have an adequate education, and we have a legislature who almost without fail chooses to ignore this law by not providing the funding it spells out with clear mathematical equations. Surely, you might think this would be impossible? I mean can the legislature have a law on the books and simply choose not to follow it without actually voting to overturn the law? I mean, if there is a law saying that the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and an employer chose only to pay me $5.00 an hour, the government or myself could take the employer to court and make him or her pay the money which was rightfully due to me under the law, right? Or else, what good is the law? So then couldn’t you take the legislature to court or something to make them follow the law since it is spelled out in black and white? Well, that is exactly what some people thought and former Governor Ronnie Musgrove actually tried to do just that, to take the state to court saying that the legislature was not following the law, just like the crooked employer in the earlier example (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2014/09/08/musgrove-law-says-shall-fund-education/15313365/).

However, the court ruled that it had no right to interfere because there was no mechanism where the judicial branch (courts) could intervene in this action by the legislative branch (state house & senate) since the Constitution of 1890 only told the legislature to fund it without giving the courts the right to become involved and the MAEP law did not spell out what to do if the legislature did not follow the law (http://djournal.com/news/judge-rules-against-musgrove-on-school-funding/). You may remember from social studies class in school that there are three branches of government and those three branches in state government are the executive (governor) who carries out the law, legislative (state house and senate) whose job it is to create the laws, and the judicial (state court system with the highest being the Mississippi Supreme Court) whose job it is to interpret whether the laws are being followed correctly. The founding fathers of our country set up these branches to be equal with various ways to check and balance one another in order to keep one branch from abusing its power and not following the law. This system of checks and balances is known as the separation of powers and is a founding principle of our democratic form of government in the United States (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/separation-powers/) and in all individual state governments as well. All of these checks and balances are spelled out in the state constitution and the state constitution is the ultimate standard upon which all branches of state government operate. Well, when former Governor Musgrove brought this lawsuit the state courts could clearly see that the legislature was not funding MAEP, but the courts could not get involved because the state constitution gave the court no way to provide a “check” in regards to funding for public education. To refer back to our analogy about the employer, imagine how you would feel if the judge told you when you took the employer to court for failure to pay you minimum wage that even though the law did give a minimum wage, the court just couldn’t get involved. I would be willing to wager that you would leave the courtroom with a feeling of injustice, that you had not been given what was legally due to you and the system needed fixed to put “some teeth” into the laws. Without “teeth” to make sure it is enforced, a law really would not be worth much would it? The same is true here in the real world in reference to adequate school funding as spelled out by the MAEP law, the law has “no teeth.” When the legislature wrote MAEP they did not write into the law that any other court could review its implementation and the Mississippi Constitution had no language in it to make sure the legislature was accountable. The legislative branch was lacking a “check and balance” and without it they had shown that they were not willing to follow their own law.

I think it is important here to make another point, if the legislature wanted to they could repeal the MAEP law, make another law which replaced it completely, or even just go in and amend the law to change the formula. However, the legislature is not willing to vote for any such change. They want to have the law on the books and apparently they do not desire to be seen by anyone as actually getting rid of adequate funding. But, again they do not want to actually fund it almost each and every year and choose to spend those funds on other things (sometimes quite creatively). You might think of the state as having a big banner above it which reads, “Our Laws Guarantee Education Funding at Adequate Levels! Come on in!” But, then when you come in the door, someone finally tells you with a smile, “Well, you know what, we don’t actually, really do that here. But, the sign is so pretty and people brag on it so much who pass by on the outside that no one is willing to change it or take it down.”

Thus, after many years of inadequate funding and seemingly no hope in sight for the legislature to consistently follow its own law to provide the prescribed amount of funding, a petition began to be circulated to use the initiative process to put into the state constitution an amendment calling for the state to provide an adequate education system and for the chancery court (our Mississippi elected judges) to be able to review and enforce this law, if the legislature did not follow or revise their own law (the teeth the previous MAEP law lacked and reason Musgrove’s lawsuit could not be addressed by the courts) (http://www.sos.ms.gov/Initiatives/Initiative%2042%20Petition.pdf). So now we, as citizens, would have the opportunity to vote “Yea” or “Nay” as to whether the state would actually provide the adequate level of funding which our legislature had already defined and just consistently chose not to provide. The petition even gave a plan where, if it were passed, the adequate level of funding could be phased in out of state revenue growth, thus not requiring new taxes. The petition was signed by well over 200,000 citizens of our state! The signatures were loaded into boxes in the bed of a Chevy truck and carried to the Secretary of State’s office to be submitted in October of 2014. Thus, it was set to be placed on the ballot as “Initiative 42” (http://yallpolitics.com/index.php/yp/post/maep_initiative_42_signatures_submitted_to_hosemann_for_review/).

(continued in the next post:  Initiative 42 – Up Until This Point – Part II: The Empire Strikes Back )

On Initiative 42 & Following the Money

Sometimes you just get tired.  Today is one of those days where I find myself tired of reading misleading information about Initiative 42 and how some people who like myself call themselves conservatives have somehow made the decision that public schools are our enemy and thus all conservatives should suddenly just up and decide to drop their support of our Mississippi schools.  I suppose most of them and perhaps their children have never even attended a public school in their life and maybe this is what has led to such opposition to them?  I don’t know for sure what the motivation is, but I am a conservative and such opposition to the idea of public schools seems elitist and foreign to me.

Take for example the newly revised “fiscal analysis” to be listed alongside Initiative 42 on the ballot.  Let’s see… the so-called, somewhat impartial sounding “fiscal analysis” says (and the initiative opposition’s talking points coincidentally seem to also say) that Initiative 42 would cost a little over $200 million to adequately fund our schools in line with existing state laws already on the books. This amount has been implied would cause scary cuts to other agencies and/or some sort of tax increase. Apparently, some agency heads were called into meetings with leadership from the legislature who oppose Initiative 42 telling them that if the initiative passed they would need to show how to immediately drastically cut their budgets for their respective departments with implied job cuts (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2015/07/07/agency-cuts-education/29814897/). Of course, Initiative 42 has a phase in provision to be slowly implemented out of only GROWTH in state revenue outlined from the onset on the original initiative petition itself; no growth in revenue for a year means that year no new money into education and it’s put off until the next time there is growth above and beyond existing revenue (http://42forbetterschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/42-Phase-In-Plan-Fact-Sheet-FINAL.pdf). So which is it? Would Initiative 42 be such a shock to the system that it would cause immediate budget cuts from prisons, roads, institutions of higher learning, etc.? Or are these just scare tactics with the intent of hurting support of Initiative 42 by making other state agencies (and their employees) fearful of giving education adequate funding? In answering that question, I found today’s article in the Clarion Ledger interesting which also led me to look up a few other facts, especially in relation to Lt. Gov. Reeves’ and Speaker Gunn’s opinion of the financial strain of Initiative 42 for public schools (http://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-sentinel-record/20150908/281762743030565/TextView).

According to the article (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2015/09/11/developer-defends-sealing-renaissance-documents/72100068/), over $155 million in tax breaks were given to “cultural retail” businesses last year. This apparently includes quite a few strip malls one of which (not included in the $155 million) is proposed to be located in Madison County and will have several retail stores. The Madison County strip mall stands to get a little over $30 million for its project this year. This has gotten the attention of some and documents have been requested asking for communications and other related documents between the developer of the strip mall and state officials. But, conveniently it seems that there was a law passed by the legislature several years ago shielding these communications from being released to the public in cases where “select” retail businesses are “chosen” to receive these millions in tax cuts.

According to the article, State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, said, “I think full transparency in regard to how state taxpayer money is spent should be required,” McDaniel said, “Generally speaking, people have every right to see how their money is spent. … I find it difficult to see what the confidential data would be regarding a strip mall. That strikes me as being a bit unusual.” Yes, I agree a bit unusual.

According to the same article, State Sen. Blount, who works in commercial real estate, said, “I’m all for commercial retail development — that’s my job much of the year. But the taxpayers of the state don’t need to subsidize low-wage retail development that competes with their own cities and counties. It does not enlarge the pie. It makes no sense for taxpayers in Pelahatchie or Jackson to pay to help their competition, to hurt their own tax base.” So these huge tax breaks aren’t given across the board to retail establishments all over the state, they are selected for certain communities and certain developments. Blout goes on to state, “In the case of a Nissan or Toyota plant — they’re bringing something new, expanding the pie, growing our economy with high-wage jobs and not competing with existing businesses.” “But the taxpayers of the state don’t need to subsidize low-wage retail development that competes with their own cities and counties.”

I can see both Blout’s and McDaniel’s points. Yes, one would think this would be something which taxpayers would be able to actually get details about and a law on the books shielding this information for a strip mall that is on track to basically be given $30 million from the state would seem like common sense. But, a few weeks ago, we saw Speaker of the House Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves both cite another state law shielding their own emails and correspondence with lobbyist and others about efforts, motivations, & strategies to defeat Initiative 42 (assuming such documents exist as they have refused to say one way or another). It seems that transparency in both cases is something which does not necessary exist as certain parties are given exemptions to public records laws by the legislature. Of course, Speaker Gunn and Lt. Gov. Reeves are both outspoken opponents of Initiative 42 and also outspoken advocates of charter schools some of which are run by for-profit companies (which there is at least one out of state charter school lobbying organization which has given extremely large donations to many state candidates who advocate for charter schools). One would also think that spending money on a retail establishment has little economic growth incentive outside of that particular community. Personally, I am going to see little return or improvement based upon a new Costco store being put into a strip mall outside of Jackson with a cost of $30 million to us as taxpayers. Why not $30 million for a retail establishment in New Albany or Picayune? Better yet, why not the $150 million approved last year and the $30 million the strip mall developer is set to receive being used toward luring another large manufacturer like Nissan or Toyota which could provide enough higher wage jobs to improve a whole region of the state?

So $150 million approved in tax cuts for selected “cultural” retail stores and $30+ million on deck to be provided from the state for a local strip mall in Madison County. Funny, I never heard anything about agencies having to be cut to provide these hundreds of millions. But, wait the interesting part is still to come.

According to the Mississippi Business Journal, March 6, 2015, in reference to Lt. Gov. Reeves (chief opponent of Initiative 42),

“The Republican says Monday he wants to increase the size of his tax cut to $550 million over 15 years. That would include $300 million in income tax cuts, eliminating the first $350 of income tax liability for individual and corporate taxpayers.

Reeves would keep his plan to phase out Mississippi’s $242 million corporate franchise tax.” (http://msbusiness.com/2015/03/reeves-proposes-more-income-tax-cuts-bumping-total-to-550m/)

That’s right, the state is so strapped for cash that a proposal to fund public schools all over the state to improve education, repair facilities, buy buses, and add teachers is going to cause the state such financial pain (even though it has a plan included to be phased in out of growth which these scare tactics totally ignore) that agencies must be slashed, taxes raised, and virtual anarchy would seem to reign as the state reached financial chaos paying the $200 million (their numbers for total adequate funding this year ignoring the growth phase in plan) this year is supposed to be the SAME state which the same person is telling us can cut $550 million in the next 15 years for corporations and individuals. Surely, there were meetings with department heads to discuss how this tax cut would result in their agencies and departments being slashed? No? Okay…

I mean that is only $36.6 million a year though. But, wait that doesn’t take into account the $150 million given to cultural retail businesses last year, does it? Come to think of it, that doesn’t really take into account the over $30 million that one strip mall in Madison is on track to get this year. I am no accountant, but how can money for one not cause cuts and/or tax increases and money for another cause cuts and/or tax increases? But, I will concede that only the tax cuts proposed by Reeves would cut into revenue currently coming in as the tax breaks being dished out to the “select” retail businesses would only come out of future revenue (that is totally assuming that the sales/revenue of these new retail establishments isn’t simply taking sales/revenue away from existing retail establishments who currently pay taxes nearby as a new, bigger, flashier, store is put in literally down the road from the old one with the new one getting the breaks). But, then we have another interesting statement in the article from the Mississippi Business Journal which just piles it on even more.

According to the article, “House leaders have proposed phasing out the $1.7 billion that Mississippi collects from personal income taxes over 15 years or longer, depending on revenues.” Now remember who the other chief opponent of Initiative 42 was mentioned above, the leader of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Speaker Gunn. Yes, that’s right 1.7 BILLION (with a “B”) in addition to the other tax cuts proposed! That would be $113 million per year in straight cuts to existing state revenue per year for this proposal alone! But, wait still no talk of drastic or any cuts whatsoever to state agencies? Still no talk of raising other taxes to pay for these billions of dollars? It doesn’t seem to be the case. So we are up now to what, $113+$36.6 million = $149 million per year each and every year of lost revenue that seems to not cause any cuts or tax increases (of course that’s not counting the $150 million or so mentioned earlier as tax cuts for “cultural” retail or the $30 million possible this year for the Madison strip mall).

****CORRECTION****    –    I stated above that the proposed $1.7 billion tax cut would be a total for the next 15 years and would average out to $113 million per year.  This is untrue and apparently my interpretation of the information read was clouded by realistic thinking.  But, according to the Tax Foundation, the $1.7 billion tax cut proposed by Speaker Gunn was not a cumulative total for all 15 years.  No, the $1.7 billion was how much the total tax cut proposal would (conservatively) be EACH AND EVERY YEAR once it was fully implemented at the end of the 15 year phase in with a total elimination of the entire Mississippi income tax by 2030!  That amount is just simply staggering and definitely makes the contrast with the comments about adequate education funding almost ridiculous.     ****CORRECTION****

My friends, I am for tax cuts as much as the next person. I don’t enjoy paying my taxes. However, the relatively small amount I pay in state taxes in relation to federal does not really bother me, if the money is being spent on things that really benefit all of us. But, what I really don’t like is being misled. I don’t like someone making out to me that all money needed for schools to be adequate would have to come out this year (the $200 million the leadership had placed in the “fiscal analysis”) in one lump sum when there is a plan in place to phase it in over years of growth.  I don’t like someone or group of someones making out to me and the people that work for good state agencies like the highway patrol, prisons, institutions of higher learning, highway department, and others that these agencies would have to face cuts and potentially people to lose their jobs should schools get “adequate” funding when out of the other side of their mouth and by their own statements they show that they have plenty of money to dish out in financial incentives for certain few retail businesses which only impact certain communities and any other corporate or other tax cut they might want to give. I don’t like it when communications take place about defeating a measure to help fund our schools put on the ballot by the people between our legislative leadership and lobbyists and then the same leaders use laws of their own making to allow them to hide these communications from the public (when if they worked in virtually any other government branch in the state they would be bound to share them). I don’t like it when the Legislative Budget Office releases one non-slanted sounding fiscal analysis of Initiative 42 and then has meetings with other legislators and comes back months later with one which implies that cuts or tax hikes would result and this is placed on the ballot as a fake “non-biased” description. I don’t like it when instead of wanting to debate the issues of adequate funding and having a straight up or down vote on the ballot for Initiative 42 (like we have had for every other initiative ever placed on our ballot), the legislative leadership uses for the very first time a provision to list their own “alternative” calling it “42A” with an almost the same (like saccharin vs. sugar) wording and title with the potential to simply confuse voters who support the original initiative and are not expecting something drastically different on the ballot this time than the ones they have voted on in the past. No, I don’t like it when shenanigans and tricks are apparently being used to confuse and scare people at almost every turn instead of just debating the ideas and merits. There is one thing that I do like; I do like the idea of children all across this state having a fair shake at an education with class sizes, facilities, and programs which only adequate funding can provide. Personally, I think that that type of spending is an investment in which we can all reap the rewards from for years to come. I am sorry that this means that the legislative leadership would not be able to continue to not follow their own formula to fund our state schools. I am sorry that this might mean whatever developer in Madison County or whichever “special” place the state wishes to bestow financial gifts upon will have to reach deeper into their own pocket before putting in a big box store to take business away from the existing one down the road. I am so very sorry that basically the legislative leadership will no longer have a pile of money which they can spend however and give to whomever they please at will. Well, I must admit, I really am not that sorry at all.

All of this being said, if you oppose Initiative 42 based upon your own understanding of its merits, I certainly respect that fact. However, I would encourage you to have a look at the scare tactics, half-truths, and seeds of confusion being sown by some to defeat adequate funding at seemingly any cost. Then perhaps examine if it might be these exact same individuals who have given you the other details you currently believe to be problematic about Initiative 42. What does it say to you about the nobility and merits of a cause that requires such efforts to confuse goodhearted and honest Mississippi citizens to keep them from voting for the initiative originally intended with an almost identical “alternative” and a ballot wording that any objective person would have to agree is confusing to cast with confidence? I hope you will consider doing a little independent research and explore for yourself whether these other claims, some of them quite outlandish and seemingly designed to push hot-button issues among good and honest people, might or might not be totally true as well. It is my belief that you as a voter have the intellectual capacity to decide what to believe on your own when given real facts and you do not need to be confused or prevented from thinking on your own and then being able to successfully vote without being confused based upon your decision. As for me, I will vote for Initiative 42 and adequate future funding for the open, public education of children all across Mississippi.

– Clint Stroupe