The three most powerful men in state government came to Gulfport on Thursday to rail against a school-funding ballot initiative.
The three, all Republicans, and GOP Chairman Joe Nosef, said the initiative was an attempt to hand legislative powers to a judge, specifically a chancery judge in Hinds County.
"When you remove the Legislature, you remove the people," said House Speaker Philip Gunn, who appeared with Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves before about a dozen people, most of them from the media. "The danger is the judge could decide matters of funding, and the other side readily admits that, but he also could decide consolidation, he could also decide curriculum."
Supporters say the initiative merely would make the Legislature abide by its Mississippi Adequate Education Program. And they said any decision in Chancery Court could be appealed to the Supreme Court, so the Hinds County judge wouldn't have sole and final say.
But Gunn doesn't buy that argument.
"Whether or not the Legislature does its job is a decision for the people to make, not a judge," Gunn said. "The people get to make that call every four years when they go to vote."
Initiative supporters say the Republicans are sending the wrong message to the rest of the nation, where Mississippi schools are perceived to be among the worst.
"It's a sad day when our top legislative leaders all hold hands and argue against full funding for our public schools," Michael Rejebian, co-manager of the 42 For Better Schools Campaign, said in an email. "The message they're sending to every public school student is that education is not a priority to them. And what must anyone considering locating a business in Mississippi think when they see this? When it comes to education, these gentlemen have lost their way."
The GOP executive committee unanimously voted to oppose Initiative 42, but some Republicans have backed it. Most Democrats favor it.
"Ironically, this shouldn't be a partisan issue," Nosef said. "Anybody who's for educating kids should be against this initiative."
Reeves said the judge could decide Coast schools were raising plenty of money locally and send them fewer state dollars.
Initiative supporters disagree.
"No way would it come from this school and go to that school," said Wynn Alexander, an Initiative 42 advocate from Wiggins. "Just like the superintendent of education divides up now, except you would get more of it."
Reeves said education funding has increased by $400 million on public education and $285 million of that increase went to K-12 schools.
"It's not about funding, it's about control," Reeves said.
Bryant was careful not to criticize Initiative 42 supporters too harshly.
"I'm not talking about the wonderful people who signed this," he said. "People who were told if you sign this you will help children have free public education. Well, of course you would sign that. Who could resist that?
"We're here to say we understand. We appreciate your concern for public education. But this is not the way you seek. This is not the way to accomplish this matter."