- Associated Press - Monday, March 30, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - An attorney with strong Republican connections is defending the Mississippi Legislature’s decision to put an alternative to a citizen-sponsored education funding measure on this November’s ballot. Some Democratic lawmakers had a terse exchange Monday with the House speaker over who authorized the attorney to speak for the entire Legislature on a divisive issue.

Michael Wallace, who often represents Republicans, filed papers Monday in Hinds County Circuit Court on behalf of the Legislature, asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last week by Oxford parent Adrian Shipman.

Shipman’s lawsuit seeks to reword the description of the Legislature’s alternative so voters won’t confuse it with a citizen-led initiative when the two measures appear, one after the other, on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Better Schools, Better Jobs gathered signatures for Initiative 42, which would require the Legislature to fund “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

In January, the Legislature approved an alternative that will go on the same ballot, proposing that the Legislature fund an “effective system of free public schools.”



The House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans, and the decision to put an alternative on the ballot was largely split along party lines, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.

Wallace said in a brief interview Monday that House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked him to defend the Legislature. Gunn and Reeves are Republicans.

House Democrats on Monday asked Gunn pointed questions about who had given him permission to hire an attorney to represent the Legislature. Financial matters in the Legislature are usually approved by the House Management Committee and the Senate Rules Committee.

Gunn said the committees did not meet to discuss using Wallace’s services before the attorney filed papers on behalf of the Legislature.

“I am a named party in that lawsuit, and I have the right to intervene, as does the lieutenant governor,” Gunn said during the exchange with Democratic Reps. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, David Baria of Bay St. Louis and Cecil Brown of Jackson.

Moak said later that Gunn is not named individually in the lawsuit.

Senate Democratic Leader Hob Bryan of Amory sent Wallace an email that said, in part: “Listen, if you really are my lawyer, you’re fired.”

A school budget formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was put into law in 1997 but has been fully funded only two years since then. It is intended to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The citizen-led initiative was prompted by frustration over schools being shortchanged more than $1.5 billion over the past seven years.

Shipman, who has two children in public schools, said Monday she was “stunned” that legislative leaders are trying to block her lawsuit.

“There are a lot of people in our state who are committed to fighting all the way ‘til the end until we get what our children deserve,” Shipman said.

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

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