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BILL CRAWFORD: Constitution should not be used to divvy up funding

Once upon a time in Mississippi, "initiatives" to fund positive change in Mississippi looked like the following:

n In a special session of the Legislature in 1982, Gov. William Winter succeeded in passing the most sweeping education reform Mississippi had ever seen. Among other things, the Mississippi Education Reform Act established and funded public kindergartens in every school district. For months prior to the special session, Gov. Winter with support from the Mississippi Economic Council and other business leaders built strong grassroots support for reforms throughout the state.

n In 1987, Yazoo City businessman Owen Cooper and other business leaders worked with Gov. Bill Allain and transportation advocates to build grassroots support for the Mississippi AHEAD program. (AHEAD stands for Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development.) At the time it was one of the nation's most comprehensive highway programs, expecting to build 1,077 miles of four-lane highways over a 14-year period. Strong grassroots support got legislators to pass a gasoline tax increase to fund the program in an election year.

n In 2000, the Mississippi Economic Council made moving teacher pay to the Southeastern average a top priority. They joined with other business leaders, teacher organizations and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to build grassroots support across the state for a teacher pay raise. Despite concerns about cost, the Legislature passed a six-year funding plan to raise teacher salaries to the Southeastern average, an ever elusive goal.

Apparently, such traditional grassroots "initiatives" are no longer the way to get positive changes funded in Mississippi.

Initiative 42 seeks to use the Constitution to fund its desired program. For the first time, funding would become a constitutional issue, not a legislative issue, a major paradigm shift in state government.

This is a big deal.

It would establish the constitutional initiative process as the new way to prioritize major spending in Mississippi. And it opens the door for supporters of other programs to bypass the Legislature to get the funding levels they want.

For example, universities and/or community colleges and their legions of supporters may drum up a constitutional funding initiative rather than using traditional efforts to gain legislators' support. The Legislature has already promised community colleges "mid-level funding" between university and K-12 programs, but never delivered. Then, there are large constituencies that want funding for school vouchers, jails and prisons, Medicaid, roads and bridges, mental health and so on.

The thought of using the Constitution to divvy up funding is truly a scary one. If Initiative 42 passes, we should expect more interest groups to give this approach a try.

That leads to this consideration. The more programs that get increased levels of funding placed into the Constitution, the more revenue the state will have to generate to fund those programs. Unless the economy of Mississippi grows at super levels, the only source of significant new revenues will be tax increases.

Using the Constitution to set program funding levels is not a good idea.

Write Bill Crawford, a syndicated columnist from Meridian, at crawfolk@gmail.com.