BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – Speaker of the House Philip Gunn spoke to the Columbus Rotary Club about Initiative 42 on Oct. 20.
Gunn spoke to packed room at Lion Hills, laying out his reasons why Initiative 42 is a bad idea and citizens should vote against it.
Gunn is from District 56. He has been in the House since 2004, and has been Speaker since 2012. He is from Clinton, and is the first Republican Speaker of the House since Reconstruction.
Local representatives Jeff Smith and Gary Chism were both in the audience.
Gunn characterized Initiative 42 as “bad public policy, and a horrible step in the wrong direction.”
“We have, in this country, a sacred, foundational right,” he said. “It’s what makes this country great. The citizens have the right to vote for the people who will represent them. We have a republic in the United States of America. We don’t have a true democracy. That’s where the crowd votes and the majority wins. We have a republic. We have representatives. You get to elect people like (Chism and Smith) to go Jackson and vote for you. On the national level you vote for the president, and Congress. On the local level you vote for the mayor and city aldermen. On the state level, your voice has been the legislature. You have the right to govern yourselves on matters of public policy and funding through the legislature. That is where the voice of the people is heard.
“The current language about education in Mississippi, according to Constitution Section 201,” he said. “It says, ‘The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.’ The legislature is the people. You, the people, have a right to have a voice in the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools. You do that through your elected representatives. If you don’t like the way he or she speaks for you, you elect somebody else who speaks for you the way you want to be heard.
“The very first change that Initiative 42 makes is that they delete the words ‘the Legislature,’” he said. “When you defeat the legislature, you defeat the people. The legislature is the venue through which the people have a voice. The first thing they do is strike out the legislature. They are taking away the rights of the people to have a voice in education. It says ‘the State shall provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.’ What does ‘adequate and efficient’ mean? I don’t know. It depends on who’s making the call, doesn’t it? Who gets to define those terms? According to the last sentence, the chancery courts of the state get to make that call.
“Initiative 42 proposes to take away the people, because the delete the legislature and give decisions pertaining to education to the chancery courts of this state,” he said. “Is it the chancery court of Lowndes County? No, it’s not. The law says you’ve got to sue people where they live. If this gentleman here and I have a car wreck, and it’s my fault, he has to sue me where I live or where the car wreck happened. He can sue me in Lowndes County, because that’s where the wreck happened, or he can serve me in Hinds County, because that’s where I live. He can’t sue me in DeSoto County, or Harrison County, because there’s no connection there. The seat of government is in the Capitol, and that’s in Hinds County. It’s not going to be your Lowndes County chancery judge making the call, it’s going to be Hinds County.
“Proponents are going to tell you that Initiative 42 is about funding,” Gunn said. “The media has said this, and they have gotten it wrong. Proponents will tell you it’s about 25 percent of growth, that it’s about (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program). Where does the work funding appear, or MAEP, or the number 25 percent appear? It ain’t in there, ladies and gentlemen. It’s about policy decisions and funding. What if this judge decides that the curriculum that you’re using in your school system in not adequate, in his opinion? What if he decides that Common Core, or some other curriculum, should be used? Can he do that? Tell me where it says he can’t do that. What if he wants to shift dollars away from one district to another? Show me where it says he can’t. What if he wants to consolidate school districts? I guess you’ve got two them here. What if he says in the name of efficiency to combine your districts into one? I don’t have any idea whether your schools are good or bad up here, but he could do that.”
Gunn asked the people in the audience how much of the state budget they thought should be spent on education. The high side of the answers was around 25 percent.
“Government has 106 budgets that we have to fund,” he said. “You want me to put bad people in jail, don’t you? You want me to keep murderers and rapists and kidnappers off the street. You want me to do bridges and roads, and keep tuition low at Mississippi State. You want me to do tourism, and economic development. These are other things that government does. Considering that, MAEP gets about 40 percent. We give more over and above MAEP. We put $284 million over MAEP into education this year. When you add up those two, K-12 gets 40 to 45 cents of every dollar that you give us. Colleges and community colleges added in gets to 54 cents of every dollar. I take offense when people say we’re not education minded.
“Medicaid passed $1 billion for the first time this year,” he said. “Those time items alone, education and Medicaid, constitute 76 cents out of every dollar. And we run the balance of government on the remaining 24 pennies. If we’re going to give (K-12) more, where is it going to come from? If we’re eating a pie, and someone wants more, where’s it going to come from? The other people at the table have to give up some of their pie. That’s not Republican or Democrat, that’s just basic economics. There ain’t no way to give someone more pie without taking it away from other people sitting at the table.
“We have done the math, and if we have to increase K-12 by $200 million, which is what they say they need, that is a 7.8 percent cut across the board,” Gunn said. “Excluding Medicaid, it’s 7.8 percent. Dr. Mark Keenum, president of MSU, testified before the budget committee a few weeks ago. He said that would cut MSU $14.5 million, $8 million and $6.5 million to the ag unit. That $8 million at MSU would require a 13 percent tuition increase and the elimination of certain teaching positions. I forget how many he said. What you’ve got is a decrease in service and a decrease in classes and you’re going to have students pay more for that.
“We’re trying to recruit quality professors to come to Mississippi,” Gunn said. “Last year we gave a 3 percent pay raise to the colleges because we have to be able to compete with other states and other places. We’ve got to raise the bar. We want to give them another pay raise, but if 42 passes that will be off the table. Plus we’re going to have to raise tuition. Plus we’re going to have students paying more for less service.
“Glen McCullough, the head of the Mississippi Development Authority, testified that the cuts could result in the closure of some of our military bases,” Gunn said. “Some of the things that they look at when they do (Base Realignment and Closure) is quality of life and other things. He said they had a real concern that if they pass Initiative 42 and they make these cuts that there could be the closure of some military bases.
“The other solution is to make the pie bigger,” he said. “How do we make the pie bigger? We raise taxes. I can tell you the Republican leadership isn’t going to do that. That’s the real-life scenario. The other side is saying that we’re just trying to scare people, but sometimes the truth is scary. If you’re going to tell someone that they’re a sinner, and they’re condemned to hell because of it, and the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, they don’t want to hear that.
“This year we gave education $2.5 billion,” he said. “That’s the largest amount education has ever received in the history of our state. Over the last four years, we’ve given them $9.5 billion. That is the largest amount in a term ever in the history of our state. We’re giving them money in a responsible way.”
Someone in the audience asked if those dollars included federal and ad valorem figures.
“That right there is general fund,” Gunn said. “That’s all we fool with. The other side wants to try to lower that amount by saying it’s around 17 percent. They’re including federal and local money. I cannot improve or increase the amount of federal dollars. This is the only amount I have control over. The only place I can get new money is from this pie right here. I can’t dip into federal funds and get more money. I don’t control federal or local, all I control is the state.”
Smith chimed in.
“Our state gets $6,143,000 Medicaid dollars,” Smith said. “Our overall budget is $21.4 billion, that’s counting our special funds and federal funds. We can’t touch that Medicaid money. People have been so disingenuous about this. The state general fund is all we control.”
“We’ve got to absorb any cuts somehow,” Gunn said. “The Department of Corrections is on that list. They’re not in the revenue generating businesses. How are they going to absorb an 8 percent cut? They’ve got to cut costs. How do they cut costs? They turn out prisoners. Public safety, the department of transportation is up there. You would not have the economic development that you have out here without quality roads and bridges. People have got to have a way to get their product to market.”
Gunn argued that funding doesn’t mean schools will be effective. He stated that lower performing school districts also have some of the highest per-pupil expenditures.
“Initiative 42 is based on the premise that money is going to make our education system better,” Gunn said. “The reason certain districts fail is because they don’t have enough money.”
The top ten school districts in the state spend an average of about $8,500 per pupil, he said, while the top ten worst districts spend an average of about $10,500.
“The worst districts are spending about $2,000 per child than the best districts in the state,” Gunn said. “As I talk to teachers and I ask them what are the problems in your classroom that can be fixed with money, they say nothing. The problems I have in my classroom are outside of that.
“If you look at a chart of what MAEP asks for and the funding we’ve given, the lines pretty well overlap,” Gunn said. “They are right on top of one another. What MAEP has called for, we have done. In this last year, we exceeded it. We gave more to education this year than what MAEP asked for. We’ve funded national board certification, literacy programs, teacher supply funds. These are things we’ve done over the past several years. We’ve had the third-grade reading gate. We’ve given teachers their first pay raise in seven years. We passed the Religious Liberties Act.”
Gunn pointed out that funding for the Lowndes County School District increased over “the last four years of Republican leadership.” He also said funding in the Columbus Municipal School District has increased over the last five years. [Of course, every budget presentation in the city schools I can remember for as long as I’ve been covering them has included the caveat that “we are still underfunded according to MAEP.” That includes this year, by the way. At the FY16 budget hearing, Business Officer Tammie Holmes said this: “Our Mississippi Adequate Education Program funds increased by nearly $760,000. That increased our total MEAP up to $20.1 million. This funded primarily to pay for the teacher raises in the upcoming school year. However, the MAEP is still being underfunded by this school district by $1.7 million. This is not an isolated issue, it is a statewide issue.” I couldn’t immediately find my notes from the LCSD’s FY16 budget hearing, but I’ve heard much the same thing there for years, too. For more on Mr. Gunn’s remarks, see my column in this week’s Packet. – Ed.]
“You see these ads on TV that says we’ve got leaky roofs, we don’t have computers, we don’t have whatever,” Gunn said. “Our children are in need. My question is what did you do with the money we gave you. I represent Madison County. They had $10 million more over the last four years. What did you do with it? If you have a leaky roof, why didn’t you fix it? If you lacked something…how did you spend your money? We’ve given you more. If you listen to them on TV, they’ll tell you they haven’t been given more. The Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review report came out last week. They studied the expenditures on the last 10 years. They determined that districts spend their money in seven different categories: instructional, administrative, student support, physical plant, so on and so forth. The report states that expenditures in every category increase, except for the instructional category. That’s teachers in the classroom. That decreased by $75 million. Salaries of teachers and other professional personnel declined by about $130 million over the past 10 years. At the same time, salaries for professional personnel and administration increased by $15 million. The number classroom teachers increased by 1.2 percent, while administrators increased by 9.6 percent. With the exception of instructional category, all major budget categories experienced increases.
“I don’t know if Lowndes or Columbus’ districts are in that group or not,” Gunn said. “My old district isn’t on this sheet. I was a school board member there for 11 years, I know we focused on putting money in the classroom. Overall, statewide, they’re misspending our money. They’re putting money into administration, not into the classroom.”
“Isn’t it such a misnomer…the locals are responsible for the own buildings,” Smith said. “The roofs and whatnot, aren’t they…you’re the ex-president of the school board. That’s why we have bonding authority locally. Those commercials make me want to vomit. That teacher with a leaky roof…Initiative 42’s not going to solve that.”