Heavy-handed Political Move Pits School Funding Opponents Against Citizens

You have probably heard by now that House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson summoned state agency heads to the Capitol yesterday in what was clearly a scare tactic designed to gin up opposition to Initiative 42, the citizen-proposed constitutional amendment that would make an adequately funded public education a fundamental right of Mississippi children (see details of Chairman Frierson’s actions below). Parents who have worked hard to get the initiative on the November ballot are outraged.

This is but the most recent in a disturbing string of efforts by elected leaders to use heavy-handed tactics to manipulate the outcome of important initiatives, many of which have a direct impact on our children (vouchers, funding, Initiative 42, etc.).

Yesterday, Chairman Frierson ordered state agency heads to report to him by July 15 how they will reduce their budgets by 7.8 percent due to cuts he threatens to make as appropriations chairman if Initiative 42 passes. Initiative 42 recommends phasing in full funding of schools using 25 percent of growth in General Fund revenue, but the chairman says he’ll push for full funding immediately if the people get their way – and punish all state agencies with budget cuts. The official filing for Initiative 42, and every petition signed by a Mississippi voter, describe explicitly how full funding of public schools is to be phased in using a fraction of any growth in state revenue in a given year – without raising taxes or affecting the budgets of other state agencies. You can see the official filing on the Secretary of State’s web site here: http://www.sos.ms.gov/elections/initiatives/InitiativeInfo.aspx?IId=42.

The House Appropriations Chairman has no authority to direct agency heads, but many of them are political appointees who will likely be afraid to buck state leaders who hold the purse strings to their budgets.

Chairman Frierson announced yesterday that he opposes not just Initiative 42, but also the legislative alternative, 42-A (for which he voted during the 2015 session – http://bitly.com/HCR9Vote). This is yet another sign that 42-A exists on the ballot simply as a means of confusing voters; even the House Appropriations Chair intends to vote “no” in November on th measure he supported with a “yes” vote in January.

Also yesterday, Chairman Frierson warned of the consequences of tax cuts recently passed by the legislature that will reduce state revenue by $125-million in the coming year, yet he voted for those cuts and for Speaker Gunn’s proposed $1.7-billion tax cut, which eventually failed. Notably, he did not order agency heads to detail how they would have absorbed that 30 percent cut to their budgets.

On numerous occasions in the past, Chairman Frierson, a former educator himself, has worked to improve education funding, even taking political risks to benefit public education. I have no explanation for this recent turn of events. Frankly, I am stunned and disappointed.

Say-one-thing-and-do-another has become the habit of too many of our leaders. Even worse are the outright falsehoods used in recent months to frighten the electorate (i.e., the “one judge in Hinds County” argument that our Supreme Court Justices exposed as hogwash) and the heavy-handed tactics employed by the leadership to whip legislators into line and advance an anti-public education agenda.

The people of Mississippi should be outraged and offended. And we should do something about it. Political manipulation like that which we have seen in recent months threatens the very freedoms that define us as Americans. It’s time for it to stop.

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