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Legislative Round-up: Failures and Formula Fake-outs

MAEP: Tweak vs 'Tamperfere'

Competing K-12 financing bills are fighting for life in the Mississippi House and Senate. The difference between them appears to be one bill proposes to decrease state payments to wealthy school districts and forward those savings to poorer districts in the form of a modest funding boost; the other promises big money but sits on a cloud of fairy dust.


The House passed HB 1453, the INSPIRE Act, along with a very generous one-time appropriation bill (HB1823) to gather support. House Speaker Jason White claims INSPIRE “will increase education funding by 9.54% more than” the state’s current Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) funding formula, adding a $3 billion total increase for K-12 public schools.


“A vote for INSPIRE is a vote to support increasing Mississippi’s education spending by more than $255 million,” White said.


“It removes the objective formula for determining a base cost.” --Nancy Loome, executive director for the Parents’ Campaign.

Funding increases by district for HB 1453 promise a $24 million boon for the majority-Black Jackson Public School district and a nearly $5 million increase for Holmes County, one of the more impoverished counties in the state and also White’s home county. Wealthy districts, including the affluent Madison and Rankin County districts, would see slight decreases in state funding this year, as the bill presses wealthy districts to employ their own substantial sales and property taxes to maintain their schools.


White’s seemingly generous bill has no formula to weigh it in place, however, and critics warn his generous numbers for poorer districts this year will be predicated year-to-year on legislators’ whim.


“It removes the objective formula for determining a base cost,” said Nancy Loome, executive director for the Parents’ Campaign. “MAEP currently provides an objective formula, which the Department of Education runs each year—they have a CPA verify it for them—that tells how much it costs in Mississippi to educate a typical child with no additional needs. We need to know what it costs to meet the standards that the state board adopts, and the objective formula tells them that.”


HB 1453 removes the formula and gives legislators the luxury of picking a random number every year for the base cost. White’s formula is only generous this year because White weighted it with determiners that make it generous. These weights could evaporate next year at legislators’ fancy.


The Senate plan, meanwhile, offers more modest increases for poor districts but does not blast the state’s objective formula to pieces. Senate Bill 2332 has the backing of Jackson senators and K-12 advocates David Blount and Sollie Norwood (Norwood is a former public school board member). That bill alters MAEP without killing it and makes the formula slightly more equitable.


Under MAEP, local districts currently provide a portion of their own locally generated sales and property taxes to pay for schools. A district’s ad valorem taxes varies from county to county. This means 28 mills (the unit of measurement for ad valorem taxes) produce considerably more in a county with $600,000 homes and $160,000 salaries—as opposed to the $40,000 homes and $18,000 average income in the Mississippi Delta’s Issaquena County, for example. The Senate proposal would increase district contribution caps from 27% to 29.5%, which allows the state to pay less money to wealthy counties and redistribute the savings to poorer districts with less bountiful ad valorem revenue.


Loome said the Senate formula is less magical than the House plan but brings fairness without tossing the state’s only functional funding formula out the window.


White remains opposed to any new plan containing a durable formula, however, saying at a press conference basing school funding on an objective formula was “a non-starter.”


“Of all things, why is that your sticking point?” Loome said of White’s line in the sand.


Five education associations agree with Loome.

“Jackson Water Takeover Bill”

Legislators’ crusade to remove the majority-Black city of Jackson’s power over its own property continues this month. In 2016, legislators passed SB 2162, the "airport takeover" bill, which sought to replace the five-member city-appointed airport commission with a nine-member board composed primarily of state appointees. Legislators’ push to remake that board continues in court, and the board—for now—is still majority Black. However, after years of malfunction, legislators now want to remove Jackson’s oversight from its own water system.

Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) Board of Commissioners. Image subject to change.

Senate Bill 2628, the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act, authored by Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, would appoint a nine-member board over the city’s water. Like SB 2162, of the 2016 session, the bill only allows the city of Jackson to appoint a minority of representative members.


One source formerly within the city of Jackson’s Water and Sewer administration claims veteran employees departed the city over the years and took much of the institutional knowledge with them. This leaves current employees with comparatively little dexterity for reading and gathering system information. New software and hardware introduced in a contract by Siemens proved a disaster as new meters failed to work with software and employees failed to grasp the software’s flawed workings. The City of Jackson and Siemens eventually settled a lawsuit, but auditors reported the city exhausted the payout from that settlement with overly optimistic revenue expectations. Aggravating the situation, state leaders regularly refused low-interest loans for city infrastructure upkeep.


A freak winter storm in 2021 brought the city’s aging system to its knees and prompted the Biden administration to deliver millions of dollars in aid as well as a third-party administrator to oversee repairs under the auspices of a federal court. That court-appointed administrator, Ted Henifin, recently approved the latest version of legislators’ takeover now that legislators have seemingly removed the possibility of steering Biden’s federal aid to Jackson’s wealthy, majority-white suburbs.


Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba calls the bill the “Jackson water takeover bill.”


“It is part and parcel of an effort to seize control of a Black city that is run by Black leadership,” Lumumba said this month.


The bill now heads to the House.

Ballot Initiative Dead. Again.

Mississippi legislators are still apparently content to keep some versions of democracy out of the hands of state voters.


The Senate voted 26-21 to pass SB 2770, a limited ballot initiative that would have allowed Mississippi residents to put policy proposals on statewide ballots, so long as those policies did not attempt to make abortion legal in Mississippi. An earlier ballot initiative suggests a majority of state residents support abortion to some degree.


Despite passing the bill, Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee Senate Chairman David Parker—the same mind behind the “water takeover bill”—killed the proposal by refusing to bring it up before a March 18 legislative deadline.


When Mississippi Supreme Court leaders killed the ballot initiative three years ago (to keep marijuana distributors out of the affluent City of Madison), they made reviving the democratic tool difficult because some initiative efforts require a two-thirds vote to amend the state Constitution. Parker told reporters he did not believe the bills could gather enough support to meet the two-thirds vote requirement.


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