Political News

Mississippi high court to hear appeal on school funding suit

Posted May 12

— Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is trying to breathe new life into his lawsuit over school funding, telling Mississippi's Supreme Court that a Hinds County judge was wrong to rule against school districts seeking more money.

Justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

Musgrove argues the July 2015 ruling by Hinds County Chancery Court Judge William Singletary was wrong because the oft-ignored law requiring full funding of the state's school formula should take precedence over yearly spending bills. He argues that the 2006 mandate to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is that strong in part because it's backed by state constitutional provisions concerning public schools.

"The plain language of the statute requires MAEP to be fully funded," Musgrove wrote in an appeal brief . "Therefore, no genuine issue of any material fact exists, the school districts are entitled to a judgment as a matter of law, and the court should enter an order granting them summary judgment."

Musgrove says any Legislature could choose to wipe out the mandate to fully fund the formula by amending the law but says that barring changes, lawmakers should not just be allowed to ignore it. Attempts to rewrite Mississippi's school funding formula, including possibly removing the full-funding mandate, were discussed this year but never moved forward as legislation. Lawmakers appropriated $2.2 billion to the adequate education program for the year beginning July, but that's $214 million less than the formula calls for. Since 2008, the formula has been underfunded by a total of $2.1 billion.

Lawyers for the state stick by the original ruling, saying the full-funding mandate is little more than a strong suggestion to future lawmakers. The state says lawmakers can't have their hands tied when it comes to future spending but remain free to act as they please.

"Each session of the Mississippi Legislature possesses constitutional discretion to annually appropriate and distribute the State's limited financial resources amongst our government's entities and programs as it deems proper and necessary," Assistant Attorney General Justin Matheny wrote .

At stake is $236 million that 21 school districts say the state owes them for the budget years 2010 through 2015, representing their shares of how much the formula was shorted. But beyond that is another $1.4 billion that other school districts could seek if the plaintiffs won their case. Plus, the districts want judges to order the Legislature to never underfund the formula again.

The attorney general claims the state is protected from having to make any payments by sovereign immunity and contends that such a court order would violate the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches.

"Mississippi courts cannot award the districts an injunction compelling legislators to appropriate them future state funds, and the districts are not entitled to a declaration operating against the Legislature in the same manner," Matheny wrote.

Musgrove disputes that, though, saying legislators obligate their future counterparts to pay for things all the time, such as when they borrow money or create new judicial positions.

Gov. Phil Bryant , House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton and state Auditor Stacey Pickering have each filed briefs supporting the state's position. All three are Republicans.


Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy.


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