- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers used budget hearings this week to deliver one central message: Pumping more money into schools could hurt other state services.

Critics said that was a scare tactic to try to kill Initiative 42, an education funding proposal that will be on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he and other legislators are being prudent. He said if 42 passes, a judge could order more spending on schools - and if that happens during the current budget year, other agencies would lose money.

“It is responsible budgeting to plan for all scenarios that are out there,” said Reeves, current chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Democratic Sen. Bill Stone of Holly Springs, who supports Initiative 42, said he skipped budget hearings because he expected they would be used to spread false information about the proposal.

“For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the same people who less than six months ago were proposing and advocating for tax cuts in the billions (with a B) can, with a straight face, tell the people of Mississippi that funding public education to the Legislature’s own definition of adequate will break the budget,” Stone said Wednesday on Facebook. “Why are these folks so terrified that Mississippians will make a statement of support and commitment to public education by voting for Initiative 42?”

Initiative 42 is a proposed constitutional amendment that got on the ballot after more than 100,000 people signed petitions. It would require the state to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of public schools,” and would allow people to file a lawsuit in chancery court if funding falls short.

Measure 42-A was put on the ballot by legislators who oppose the citizen-led proposal. It would require the Legislature to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools without judicial enforcement.”

Legislative leaders say 42 could give a judge control over a large portion of the state budget, taking the power of the purse away from the House and Senate.

The 14-member Budget Committee held hearings Monday and Tuesday to hear agencies’ spending requests for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. Responding to questions from committee members, several agency leaders said current-year budget cuts would force them to reduce services in a way that could hurt people.

Department of Mental Health director Diana Mikula, for example, said residential facilities for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities might have to send some clients back to their families.

Mississippi Development Authority director Glenn McCullough said budget cuts could hurt his agency’s efforts to fight military base closures.

During the legislative session several months ago, Republican leaders in the House and Senate pushed unsuccessfully for tax cuts. They argued state government services wouldn’t suffer because taxes would be reduced slowly. Some said tax cuts would stimulate economic growth.

Supporters of Initiative 42 make a similar argument now. They say additional education funding could be phased in over time, and they believe it’s unlikely a judge would order an immediate funding increase that would force cuts in other government services.

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

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