Advocates of the proposed constitutional amendment known as Initiative 42 have twisted a passage in my 2007 State of the State address to mislead voters into believing I support their very harmful ballot measure. Not only am I against Initiative 42, I strongly urge all Mississippians to vote "against both" measures on the November ballot.
When I spoke to the Legislature in January 2007, our state had turned the corner in the Katrina recovery: The federal government had been extremely generous with disaster assistance legislation; state tax revenue had exploded as tens of thousands of homes had been rebuilt or repaired; casinos that year would have an all-time record gaming haul; all of which produced the highest state tax revenue in our 188-year history. Further, our country was in the sixth year of consistent economic growth and low unemployment.
Based on those facts I proposed record funding for our K-12 schools, a funding level that met the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), as well as increased state funding for higher education. The money was there to spend at those levels, and everyone expected state revenue to increase in the coming years.
Yet the country began a deep recession in late 2007, which lasted nationally until mid-2009.
Never miss a local story.
During the Great Recession, Mississippi's general fund revenue came in $197.1 million or 1.67 percent below estimates in FY 2009 and a whopping $452 million or nearly 9.5 percent below estimates in FY 2010.
As governor, I had to reduce spending across the board in FY 2010 by 9.4 percent in order to meet our requirement of having a balanced budget. Consider the consequences if Initiative 42 had been the law at that time: Instead of all departments and agencies sharing in the 9.4 percent cut, K-12 (which absorbs about 40 percent of our state's general fund budget) would have been exempt from cuts, and every other function of government -- universities and community colleges, mental health facilities, and public safety -- would have had to be cut nearly double, or approximately 18 percent.
As this recent history shows, Initiative 42 is terrible as a practical matter because it ties the Legislature's hands and jeopardizes funding for other critical areas of state government.
It is also awful public policy because it totally eviscerates the constitutional system of separation of powers that has been fundamental to American government since 1789.
Initiative 42 would usurp the setting of K-12 education policy and budget, taking it away from the Legislature and governor -- elected by all Mississippi voters -- and give it to the judicial branch -- indeed, to one chancery judge, elected by one-fourth of the voters in Hinds County.
While advocates of judicial policymaking and budget setting say that one judge's decisions would be appealable to the State Supreme Court, how is it a good idea to allow judges -- elected for their judicial temperament, legal knowledge and ability to apply law to facts -- to become policymakers and budgeteers? Those are not the roles of our courts, as Justice Randolph recently noted in an opinion on this matter.
Proponents tell you this initiative is about MAEP, but don't be deceived. The constitutional amendment never uses the words "Mississippi Adequate Education Program" or "MAEP." Initiative 42 does not require the state to fund the MAEP formula at 100 percent or any percent. It gives one chancery judge in Hinds County the power not only to set K-12 education spending but to make education policy decisions in order to guarantee Mississippi's children "an adequate and efficient education." This week education attorney and Initiative 42 supporter Jim Keith conceded this point, saying a judge could make and enforce policy decisions, including school consolidation. Remember, Initiative 42 is not about MAEP, nor is it limited to just spending levels.
Finally, the constitutional change sought by Initiative 42 does not say the huge spending increases sought by its proponents can be phased in. The judge who sets the required education spending levels is given no authority to phase in the increases.
Mississippi voters should be wary of Initiative 42. This amendment is terribly irresponsible, as it will shift power from the Legislature to a Hinds County judge with no regard for potential cuts to priority areas like universities and community colleges. While Mississippi spent more on K-12 education when I was governor than under any other governor in our history, I must urge voters to read the language of the initiative before casting a vote in November, and I think you'll agree: 42 is a dangerous amendment for Mississippi's future. Vote against Initiative 42.
Haley Barbour, founding Partner of BGR Group, was governor from 2004 to 2012.