Rethink Mississippi: What Would Legislature’s ‘Alternative Language’ Mean for School Funding Initiative?

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Say you’re a legislator who has repeatedly voted to appropriate less money to the state’s K-12 system than prescribed by the funding formula known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. You’ve always known that even though MAEP legally requires the Legislature to dole out the full amount, it lacks enforcement power. Therefore, you’ve felt comfortable ignoring the funding mandates laid down by previous legislators. If push ever came to shove, you could just repeal the statute.

But now you’re worried that might change. This November, Mississippians will vote on a constitutional amendment circumscribing the Legislature’s ability to ignore MAEP. If it wins a simple majority of the vote, then underfunding MAEP (or some definition of “adequate” funding) would violate the state constitution. Ultimately the state Supreme Court could force you to pay up. Checks and balances.

The Better Schools Better Jobs campaign did the yeoman’s work of collecting signatures last summer in order to get the amendment onto the November ballot. They recorded the signatures of at least 116,000 registered voters, equally distributed across Mississippi’s five pre-2000 Congressional districts. The Secretary of State has certified it as Initiative 42.

Now, as our legislator, you know that a fair number of your constituents signed the petition, and that it won’t look good this November to oppose it outright. But you don’t particularly want to drop another $200 million into MAEP, and you certainly don’t want to cede power of the purse to another branch of government. What do you do?

Luckily for you, the previous legislators who crafted the initiative process gave you an escape hatch. A single bill by you and your colleagues can raise the number of votes it takes to pass the amendment and confuse voters who aren’t trained in the nuances of education finance law. Yes, you get to move the goalposts and yell in the kicker’s ear at the same time. Democracy is beautiful, isn’t it?

Here’s how it works. The Secretary of State sends the certified initiatives to the Legislature in the session prior to the election. The Legislature has the power to offer an alternative to any initiative before it is placed on the November ballot. If they do so, the original and alternative language will be listed side-by-side on the ballot for the voters to sort out.

But before they choose between the competing versions, they also have to indicate whether they support either initiative or none of them. This is roughly how it will look:

Question 1. VOTE FOR APPROVAL OF EITHER, OR AGAINST BOTH:

FOR APPROVAL OF EITHER Initiative No. 42 OR Alternative No. 42 A ( )

AGAINST Both Initiative No. 42 AND Alternative No. 42 A ( )

Question 2. AND VOTE FOR ONE:

FOR Initiative Measure No. 42 ( )

FOR Alternative Measure No. 42 A ( )

For the original version to be adopted, a simple majority must support approval of either initiative on Question 1. Then it must receive a majority of votes on Question 2. But here’s where it gets diabolical: the original version must also receive at least 40 percent of all votes cast in the election — even among people who voted against both initiatives or skipped the questions completely.

The goalposts move based on how many people support approval on Question 1. Depending on the results of Question 1, the below chart gives a rough estimate of how many people must choose the original langauge over the alternative on Question 2. (Based on voter dropoff on the 2011 Personhood initiative, I’ve added the assumption that 3 percent of voters will skip the question.)

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To put it into words, if a bare majority supports the approval of either initiative on Question 1, then the original version of the amendment must receive 82 percent of the vote on Question 2 in order to satisfy the 40 percent threshold. If 70 percent support approval on Question 1, then the original version needs 59 percent on Question 2.

Of course, if the alternative language could be adopted if it received the above levels of support, but it will be designed to be legally meaningless. The Initiative 42 alternative language moving through the House promises every Mississippian the right to an “effective system of free public schools.” It deliberately excludes the funding requirements laid out by Initiative 42 or the “adequate and efficient” language that is familiar to education finance law in other states — but it still sounds good enough to confuse a lot of people who might not realize that.

So back to what’s most important here: our legislator. You’ve resorted to this arcane bit of chicanery for the first time since the Mississippi’s citizen initiative process began, thus reducing the chances you’ll ever be forced to spend money you don’t want to. But, hey, now you campaign for reelection this fall as a proponent of the Alternative Initiative 42, and nobody can question your public school bona fides. Everyone wins, right?


2Jake McGraw is the public policy coordinator for the William Winter Institute and the editor of Rethink Mississippi, an outlet for insight, analysis, and commentary about the issues facing Mississippi’s rising generation. A native of Oxford, Jake studied public policy and economics at the University of Mississippi and economic history at the University of Oxford. You can contact him at jake@winterinstitute.org.

Rethink Mississippi is an outlet for insight, analysis, and commentary about the issues facing Mississippi’s rising generation — written by people who are committed to making a difference in the state. RM is sponsored by the William Winter Institute, which works with communities in Mississippi and around the world to end all discrimination based on difference.

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