On March 1, the state Senate said no to the leadership’s plan to change how state money is distributed to public K-12 schools. Next came the weekend. On March 5, Thad Cochran, Mississippi’s senior and super delegate to the U.S. Senate announced his resignation.
Because we live in a one-story-at-a-time world, the vote on school funding didn’t get the media ride it deserved.
It was cool, though, when, during debate on the House-passed rewrite, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, casually made a motion to send H.B. 957 back to committee. Perhaps it even surprised Bryan when eight Republicans joined the 18 other Democrats in supporting his motion. Two Republicans were absent and two didn’t vote, and, because the deadline for committee work has passed, the legislation was shelved 27-21, at least until next year.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, predictably, blamed the press.
“I know you’re all smiling big today,” Reeves told a clutch of reporters in a Capitol hallway minutes later. “You worked really hard to kill this, and you were very, very successful at doing so.”
Actually, no one worked really hard to kill the bill. No one really worked very hard to get it passed, either, except Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
That’s because the bill really didn’t change much.
Mississippi has been underfunding public schools almost every year since 1997 when lawmakers first pledged fealty to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program as the do-all to end-all.
Mississippi would continue to underfund public schools under H.B 957.
Some of the metrics would change, notably allocations would be per student. A few districts would gain a bit; others would lose a bit. It would become easier, in terms of arithmetic, to move a student’s allocation to a charter school.
The purpose of the legislation — carefully orchestrated for more than a year — was to remove the Legislature from the bullseye of complaints. It whacked MAEP, which the Legislature had set in legal stone and ignored for decades.
Think of it like this: Say one spouse pesters the other for failing to keep a promise to feed and care for a dog.
Kill the dog.
The eight Republic defectors were Nickey Browning of Pontotoc, Videt Carmicheal of Meridian, Dennis DeBar of Leakesville, Tommy Gollott of Biloxi, Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg, Chad McMahan of Guntown, J. Walter Michel of Jackson and Joseph Seymour of Vancleave. Several said not a single school superintendent — the ones who deal with funding and budgets every day — was enamored by what Gunn and Reeves kept calling a vast improvement and proof positive of their personal devotion to public schools.
Now the eight have to worry about vengeance.
Reeves is not the first Machiavellian lieutenant governor of Mississippi, but he puts several of his predecessors in the shade when it comes to punishing those who don’t toe the line.
He has carried forward the mantle of former Gov. Kirk Fordice who believed too much government was the problem and less government was the solution. Fordice wasn’t very good at cutting. The state actually added almost 30,000 employees during his tenure. But Reeves has been adept at the approach known as starving the beast. Stop borrowing. Cut taxes. Government shrinks.
It sounds so good, but much of it is illusory. The income tax cut passed last year goes into effect this year and when fully phased in will save a family $150 per year. That’s $3 per week.
The state sharply reduced bond issues at a time of very low interest rates. Many call this folly because the state could be paying today’s costs for capital projects instead of costs a few years down the road, which will likely be more even with interest payments factored in.
Not incidentally, Reeves who has been setting the stage to run for governor, rolled out a $1.1 billion infrastructure rebuilding plan that figures to be a mainstay in his stump speech. The source for the money? Diversions from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which he has insisted on rebuilding, and perhaps borrowing, given the debt picture that he has worked effectively — by not borrowing — to make rosy. As it happens, this capacity for spending will mature about the time the next governor takes office.
Reeves is also not the first official — not by a longshot — to blame the media when carefully laid plans hit a bump in the road. He won’t be the last.
But it was members of his own party — not reporters — who said, “Wait a minute.” He didn’t enjoy the wrist slap, but who would?
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.
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