"I've been cheated,
When will I be loved?
I've been put down.
I've been pushed 'round.
When will I be loved?"
-- Phil Everly
That's a song Mississippi voters can sing.
The positive aspect of the Initiative 42 vote, as backers said last week, is that it pushed public education funding into the limelight, if only for a moment.
Another outcome is that it proved the effectiveness of the poison pill option legislators inserted back in 1992 when Mississippi granted the people power to write and pass laws on their own.
A little more about "Initiative and Referendum." Mississippi, after years of discussion, was among the last states to create an initiative process. It's cumbersome. Only a couple of citizen initiatives have made it to the ballot. (Term limits were rejected twice, and a "personhood" amendment declaring life begins at fertilization also failed. The 2001 vote on the state flag was not an I&R measure.)
In addition to the hoops and loops in the petition-gathering process, the 1992 legislation decreed there had to be a legislative session between the moment a petition was certified and the day it appeared on ballots. The reason for this was so lawmakers, if they wished, could (1) adopt the measure, canceling the need for a vote, or (2) offer a competing measure.
Last Tuesday was the first time the Legislature chose to offer alternative wording. As has been widely noted, 42A wasn't drafted as a better alternative to 42. It wasn't an alternative at all. No one campaigned for it. It was a poison pill, put on ballots to add confusion. It worked.
Totals showed 59 percent of voters favored 42, but, separately, 52 percent voted not to change the Constitution at all. So splat. End of discussion.
But most amazing aspect -- and really unexplained -- is that lawmakers and several state incumbents put so much time and effort into disrespecting voters. They chose to muddy the water even more than the treacherous double-ballot.
Lots of money was spent on both sides, but those opposed didn't stretch the truth. They dragged, kicked and stomped it.
"This will take money from some K-12 districts and give it to others."
Fact: The 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program was passed to create a system of allocating more state funds to "poor" districts. It was NOT passed to increase funding overall. Its sole purpose was to even-out funding because the U.S. Department of Education was suing each state not already "taking money some school districts might have received and giving it to others."
This is no secret. The formula is on the state Department of Education website: "Average Daily Attendance multiplied by Base Student Cost plus At-Risk Component minus the local contribution plus 8 percent." The At-Risk Component is deduced based on free or reduced meal eligibility. The more free meals, the higher the At-Risk Component. Voters were adamantly told that passing 42 would mean the state would be forced to start doing something it has already been doing for 20 years.
"Trial lawyers will have a field day."
Fact: It's also no secret that trial lawyer and former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove represents 21 school districts that sued the state well before last week for not following its own school funding law. A victory would mean millions for Musgrove and associates, too.
Initiative 42 had nothing to do with lawsuits. The state can be sued by anybody, anytime.
"Passing 42 will cause immediate budget cuts elsewhere."
Fact: Not unless the Legislature wanted to play some sort of spite game. As those against the amendment said, actual state funding for K-12 is rising and already very close to the total needed to "fully fund." This year's allocation was about $200 million short -- which is less than the state added to its already-healthy Rainy Day Fund during this year's session. That is, if the state had wanted to fully fund the formula this year it could have -- and without taking a nickel out of any other account.
Different result, of course, if a suit like Musgrove's prevailed and the state is ordered to make up 18 years of shortfalls.
None of this is sour grapes. Initiative 42 would have worked no miracles. It's just that voters might like to adopt Mr. Everly's lyrics as their theme song:
"I've been made blue.
I've been lied to.
When will I be loved?"
Charlie Mitchell, former editor of the Vicksburg Post, is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.