- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Hinds County circuit judge has rewritten the title of an education-funding proposal that legislators put on the November ballot.

A citizen-led proposal, Initiative 42, would amend the state constitution to require the Legislature to fund “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” It would allow people could appeal to chancery court if the Legislature falls short on the budget obligation.

Lawmakers put an alternative proposal, Initiative 42-A, on the same ballot, and it originally said the Legislature must fund “an effective system of free public schools.” But supporters of the citizen-led initiative said the original ballot title for 42-A failed to make clear that the alternative wouldn’t allow an appeal to chancery court.

Circuit Judge Winston Kidd on Thursday rewrote the title of 42-A to say the Legislature should fund “effective public schools” but there would be no “mechanism to enforce that right.”

An Oxford mother with children in public school, Adrian Shipman, filed a lawsuit last week asking Kidd to rewrite the legislative alternative’s ballot title, which is the short description of the proposal that people will see when they vote. Shipman said voters could become confused between the ballot titles of the two proposals because they were similarly worded.

“I think this is huge for the children of Mississippi,” Shipman said of Kidd’s ruling Thursday. “I think it will be a lot more obvious what the two proposals are.”

Supporters of Initiative 42 say they were motivated by lawmakers’ decisions, year after year, to shortchange a budget formula that’s designed to ensure schools have enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, has been fully funded only two years since it was put into law in 1997.

State law says the circuit judge’s ruling to rewrite a ballot title cannot be appealed, said Pamela Weaver, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the state’s top elections official.

Michael Wallace, a private attorney hired to represent the Republican-led Legislature, asked Kidd to keep the alternative’s original wording. After Kidd’s ruling, Wallace declined to comment.

“I think my clients in the Legislature are fully capable of explaining what they think about all of this,” Wallace said.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, did not discuss the substance of Kidd’s ruling.

“We have an attorney. It is in litigation. We will listen to his advice,” Gunn said at the Capitol.

A group that was originally called Better Schools, Better Jobs used thousands of volunteers last year to gather signatures from more than 116,500 people to put Initiative 42 on the November 2015 ballot. At least 107,200 signatures were needed to put the proposal before voters. The initiative’s sponsor group this week renamed itself 42 For Better Schools.

Mississippi law allows legislators to propose an alternative to any initiative that makes it to the ballot, but this is the first time legislators have chosen to do it. Democrats in the House and Senate voted against putting an alternative on the ballot, saying the alternative could confuse voters and kill the citizen-led proposal. Most House Democrats signed a letter to support Shipman’s lawsuit.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .


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