Lawsuit: Gov. overstepped his authority when he slashed MAEP budget

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Two Democratic legislators are suing Gov. Phil Bryant for what they argue is an overstep of his constitutional powers that hurt Mississippi’s public school funding formula.

Mississippi House of Representatives

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens

On Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center participated in oral arguments in the Mississippi Supreme Court on behalf of Rep. Bryant Clark of Pickens and Sen. John Horne of Jackson.

The complaint was filed in May 2017 against the governor, Department of Finance and Administration executive director Laura Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Education, and state treasurer Lynn Fitch.

It argues that the governor’s repeated budget cuts in fiscal year 2017 that stripped funds from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the chronically underfunded public school funding formula, was unconstitutional. The suit argues that only the Legislature has budget making authority.

In September 2016, Bryant enacted a $56.8 million budget cut to offset an accounting error. In January 2017 he was forced to cut the budget again, this time by $50.9 million due to low tax revenue projections. A month later, Bryant cut the budget for a third time because of continued low projections. This $43 million cut included the MAEP. In March 2017 he cut the budget for a fourth time by $20.5 million, once again for continued low tax revenue projections.

The complaint argues “these midyear budget cuts have devastated nearly every area of state government, but none more so than the Mississippi public schools.”

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is consistently the biggest chunk of the state budget legislators craft every spring, topping out at over $2 billion annually. Despite this, the formula has only been fully funded twice since 1997, and the Supreme Court decided last fall that the state is not legally required to do so. The budget cuts in fiscal year 2017 cut the agency by approximately $20 million.

“I believe that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is the most important component of the state budget,” Horhn said in a statement. “I do not know what analysis was conducted that allowed the Governor to conclude that schools did not need this $20 million. Schools need this money. Without sufficient resources, school districts are unable to educate our children.”

The SPLC lawsuit requests the Supreme Court strike down the statute of the Mississippi Constitution that allows the state fiscal officer, who is appointed by the governor, to cut the budget when there is a shortfall in revenue. It is the governor’s job to keep the state budget balanced.

Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Southern Poverty Law Center senior attorney Will Bardwell

During oral arguments, SPLC attorney Will Bardwell said these cuts violate Mississippi’s constitutional rules about the separation of legislative and executive powers.

Any decision that affects how much money is available to an agency is a legislative decision,” Bardwell said.

This case is not about whether agencies must spend every dollar they are appropriated, he said. If an agency can do everything it is required to without reaching its spending limit that is not an issue, but “it is a completely different situation when another branch of government comes in and changes that spending limit.”

In the defense’s oral argument, attorney Krissy Nobile from the attorney general’s office (which represents the governor and state entities) said the SPLC’s argument was filled with “word play” and the governor was acting within his rights to keep the state budget balanced.

“The Legislature here holds all of the important cards when it comes to making appropriations, when it comes to spending authorities, when it comes to budget making,” Nobile said. “But the governor, the governor has the cards when it comes to budget control, and the parameters and statute set forth these two things.”

Clark told Mississippi Today the state’s argument “doesn’t hold water” and he believes the governor is exceeding his constitutional authority.

“Making a choice by the executive branch to reduce spending is one thing, but to actually take money away from an agency that has been appropriated money is something totally different and left to the Legislature,” he said.

Both parties now wait on the Supreme Court to review their arguments and make a decision.