Like it had the previous day in the House, the debate quickly grew testy. When Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, asked Grant Tollison, R-Jackson, about the definition of “effective,” Tollison told him, “Look it up on Webster’s.”
Photo by Trip Burns.
In what many Democratic lawmakers characterized as a disingenuous ploy, legislative Republicans were able to get enough votes to secure a spot on the November ballot for their alternative public school amendment.
House Concurrent Resolution 9, which passed the House 64-57 Tuesday, passed the Senate 30-20 Wednesday—in a virtually a straight party-line vote in both chambers.
The Senate discussed the quality and level of funding of education in Mississippi more than the House did in their debate, but Democrats in both bodies spoke out about what they believed the real intent of the alternative amendment is: to kill the “people’s initiative.”
The Mississippi state law regarding the initiative process allows legislators to draft an alternative to any statewide ballot referendum, vote on it and place it on the ballot. In this case, public school advocates worked for months to gather around 200,000 signatures, almost 122,000 of which were certified by the Secretary of State, to amend the constitution to compel the Legislature to fund education adequately.
The measure, Initiative 42, would amend Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution “to require that the State must provide and the legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”
While Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, who handled the resolution in the Senate, repeated many times at the Wednesday debate that the initiative is “not a funding bill,” it is titled “Public School Funding” on the Secretary of State’s website.
The alternative amendment would “require the Legislature to provide, by general law, for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools.”
Like it had the previous day in the House, the debate quickly grew testy. When Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, asked Tollison about the definition of “effective,” Tollison told him, “Look it up on Webster’s.”
Initiative 42 includes language that would give authority to the chancery court to enforce the law in the case of a lawsuit. The alternative does not. However, Democrats argued that the current law allows for lawsuits just as the amendment would, which raises questions about what is really different between the original and the alternative amendment.
Arguing that it is unclear, Democrats such as Sen. Bill Stone, of Holly Springs said the alternative is just a “booby trap.” Blount called it a “political trap door."
The ballot will likely include two sections now that the Legislature has placed an alternative amendment on ballot. One will ask the voter if they wish to vote for either or neither of the amendments. If the voter checks “yes” for the first section, the second section asks which amendment the voter wants.
Tollison was unable to tell the Senate what the results would be in several different voting scenarios, including if a voter checked “yes” in the first section and failed to specify which amendment he or she wanted in the second section.
Blount said it is likely a voter in that scenario would have wasted their vote. “If it can’t be explained on the floor of the Senate, it’s going to confuse voters at home,” Blount said.
Several Democratic lawmakers also spoke out against the alternative amendment in the House discussion on Tuesday and some hinted that legislators were being coerced into voting for the alternative.