JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Supporters of a citizen-led school funding initiative have lost a battle in the Mississippi Supreme Court.
In a split decision Thursday, justices ruled that a Hinds County circuit judge should not have rewritten the ballot title for an alternative initiative, also dealing with school funding, that legislators put on the Nov. 3 ballot.
A ballot title is a brief description of a proposed constitutional amendment, and the wording is important because it could determine whether voters accept or reject a proposal.
The justices' ruling means the original language for the Legislature's alternative initiative will appear on the ballot.
Initiative 42 got on the ballot through citizens' petitions, and its supporters say it's a way to force lawmakers to fully fund an education budget formula that has been ignored most years since it was put into law in 1997. The ballot title for Initiative 42 says the state must provide "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools." It also stipulates that people could sue the state if education funding falls short.
The Republican-controlled Legislature put Initiative 42-A on the same ballot as an alternative. The original title for 42-A, written by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, said lawmakers must fund "effective free public schools."
Supporters of 42 filed a lawsuit early this year to seek a new description of 42-A, arguing voters could become confused and not know how to choose between the two similarly worded proposals. In April, Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd rewrote the title of 42-A to say the Legislature should fund effective schools, but to specify that there is no mechanism for enforcement, meaning that the Legislature didn't say people could file a lawsuit if funding falls short.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit was Adrian Shipman of Oxford, who has children in public schools.
"Regardless of what the Supreme Court says, we are completely dedicated to winning Nov. 3 for the sake of all our children's futures," Shipman said in a statement Thursday. "And, certainly, it doesn't change the fact that the legislative alternative to Initiative 42 is nothing more than our lawmakers' best effort to confuse voters and hold public education hostage."
A majority of justices ruled Thursday that state law gives a circuit judge the power to rewrite the ballot title for a citizen-led initiative but not the ballot title for an alternative initiative put on the ballot by legislators.
Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, have said the citizen-led initiative could give one judge control over the state budget. Reeves and Gunn issued a joint statement Thursday praising "the justices' decision to correct a Hinds County judge who overstepped his constitutional role."
"This judicial irresponsibility is precisely why voters should be wary of Initiative 42, which gives a Hinds County judge the authority to direct education policy," they said in the statement.