Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Do you ever wake up in the morning and wonder why Mississippi's Republican Leadership seems to hate democracy so much?
I get that they hate Democrats; they can't even get their name right. (It's the Democratic Party, not the "Democrat Party." Wonder how many times we'll hear that this political season.)
But what I'm talking about is "little d" democracy—you know, the "of the people" thing—and specifically when it comes to Initiative 42, the ballot initiative designed to get the Legislature to follow its own Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula when it sets the budget for state public-school funding.
MAEP is the law in Mississippi; GOP leaders in the Legislature, however, have ignored that law for most of the time that it's been the law. They are, in that way, not unlike Mexican undocumented immigrants whom conservatives like to call "criminals" because they're "breaking the law" that specifies the number of immigrants allowed to emigrate from that particular country.
The law says we follow the MAEP formula to set the school budget; the Legislature won't do that. Law broken.
After years of watching this happen, the people of Mississippi have stepped in to create a ballot initiative to force them to follow their own law.
Now note, for the record, that up until this moment, there's nothing that would have kept Republicans in the Mississippi Legislature from trying to overturn or replace MAEP. Why they didn't try, so that they could continue to underfund education in a manner that would at least be legal under Mississippi Code, is something you'd have to ask them. My guess would be they didn't want to be seen as "anti-education" in such an overt way, when a covert one is more convenient.
In other words, they won't even stand up and own what they're trying to do.
During tough times such as Katrina and the Great Recession, people understood that some things might be underfunded, and there was less pressure on adhering the MAEP formula. (In hindsight, given the ineffectiveness of much of the corporate welfare of the Haley Barbour years, focusing on funding MAEP instead of fly-by-night alternative energy companies would have been the way to go. Just this week, the State is trying to sell off pieces of KiOR to get back some of the $79 million they owe us.)
Now, with the Mississippi coffers full, the leadership still doesn't want to fund MAEP. Why? The truth is that the powers-that-be have never funded Mississippi public education fully since it was desegregated. Starting in the early '70s, public-school districts were splintered into Council schools and seg-academies—in many cases the white folks grabbed the books and desks and moved them to another building because they didn't want to educate their kids alongside black kids. It's just true.
Since that time, Mississippi's legacy of white supremacy has remained the dominant influence in public-school funding. MAEP was an attempt to correct that; after the confetti stopped dropping on that accomplishment, the legislators reverted to their mean, failing to fund public education because, presumably, it was going to help too many people that don't look like them.
So, the Legislature passes a law and then breaks it repeatedly; instead of locking themselves up, they pat themselves on the back. As a result, over the years, enough people (of all races) got sick enough of their hypocrisy that they mounted a citizen's initiative to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, giving the state's citizenry the right to make a ("little d") democratic decision about the future of public education in the state.
What happens when they get that item on the ballot? The Republicans in the Legislature make the unprecedented move of adding their own alternative initiative language in a clear attempt to subvert the democratic process from happening. Not content to allow the public to simply vote the initiative up or down on its merits, they work, instead, to confuse the matter.
Not only is their language unclear and essentially meaningless, but also by adding the "alternative initiative" for the first time in the history of Mississippi's initiative process, they've created new steps designed to ensure as much confusion as possible.
One is reminded of Mississippi's not-distant-enough-past, where questions on the "literacy test" designed to keep African Americans from voting included doozies such as "how many bubbles are in a bar of soap." It's an attempt to make participation in the democratic process impossible for regular citizens.
Next step ... the political commercials. With eerie music and black shadows, the opponents of Initiative 42 (I'd call them supporters of Initiative 42a, but since that "initiative" is meaningless, it'd be rude to assume it has actual supporters) are trying their best to "Willie Horton" Initiative 42 by suggesting that all the power of education funding will be placed in the hands of one (presumably black; see the graphic) "Hinds County judge" who will decide—again, presumably—that all the little black kids get free money on the playgrounds while the little white kids get nothing but knuckle sandwiches and pamphlets recounting their grandparents' sins.
Education is the bedrock of economic development. It's the primary foundation of success in the global economy of the 21st century. It's so much more important to invest in than failed ports, wood-into-diesel startups or tax abatements for big-box retailers. Public education should be a non-negotiable in the state's budget, just as the law set it up to be.
And I guess it's too much to ask, but I really am confused about this—how do Phil Bryant, Tate Reeves and Philip Gunn not feel a great deal of shame in this effort? They are literally working to subvert the machinery of democracy in their own state because they are afraid that the citizens may tell them something they don't want to hear—that we want the kids of this state to get an adequate education.
It's a common refrain, but it's an important one this time around—don't be fooled by their game. Vote Yes (twice!) on Initiative 42, and let's make the GOP in the statehouse finally do the right—which happens to be the legal—thing and fully fund public education in Mississippi.
Todd Stauffer is the publisher and president of the Jackson Free Press and BOOM Jackson.