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If Legislature fails to pass education budget, rivals Hood, Reeves agreed in past schools would still be funded

Based on an opinion by former Attorney General Jim Hood and the embrace of that opinion by Gov. Tate Reeves, there could still be an option for the state to fund local school districts should the Legislature end the 2024 session without passing a budget for K-12 education.

Comments by Speaker Jason White, R-West, have caused some to fear that the House will leave K-12 education unfunded if the Senate does not agree to rewrite the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of state funding for local school districts.

In several interviews, White has said that the House has funded MAEP “for the last time.”

In emailed questions, Mississippi Today followed up asking White if he meant the House would not agree to an education budget if MAEP is not repealed.

Taylor Spillman, a spokesperson for White said, “As the speaker has made clear .., the House has funded MAEP for the last time and remains committed to passing a funding formula that is equitable and student-centered for Mississippi’s K-12 public schools.”

White supports a House-passed plan to replace MAEP. Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar has passed a record amount of funding for education through the Senate this session, including an annual $1,000 teacher pay raise, and has agreed to study the education funding formula after the session with the possibility of replacing or making changes to MAEP next year.

White is insistent those changes be made this year, leaving some to worry that the session could end with no budget to provide state funds to local school districts.

There has been speculation about what would happen if there is no education budget.

In 2020, Reeves, in his first year as governor, vetoed the bulk of the education budget. Reeves said in that veto message, “The Department of Education will continue to function. The bulk of the agency will run in the short term by a letter from me, backed up by an AG opinion, stating that they constitutionally have to perform their duties until the legislature can fix this.”

The Attorney General’s opinion Reeves was referencing came during the administration of former AG Jim Hood, who had lost the gubernatorial election to Reeves less than a year earlier.

The 2009 opinion written by Hood’s office was in the middle of a monumental standoff between then-Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, and a Democratic Party-controlled House. Barbour wanted a tax imposed on the state’s hospitals. The House opposed the Barbour plan.

The disagreement on the hospital tax resulted in the inability to reach an overall budget accord on issues ranging from health care to law enforcement to education.

During that standoff, Hood, as Mississippi’s chief legal officer, maintained that while the sole responsibility to appropriate state funds rests with the Legislature, there are certain services spelled out in the state Constitution that must be provided regardless of whether there is a legislative appropriation.

The Constitution mandates that there be public schools.

In 2020, Reeves reasoned, again based on the opinion of his former rival, that in the absence of a new budget approved by lawmakers, it should be funded at the level it received in the last legislative appropriation.

But the AG’s opinion could be challenged in court.

In 2009, the opinion was a legal theory but never was put into practice because of a late night budget agreement only hours before the clock struck midnight on July 1 to start a new fiscal year.

In 2020, not long after the Reeves’ veto, the Legislature reconvened and overrode his veto, thus reinstating the education budget.

Time will tell whether the Hood opinion could be a factor later this summer if the Legislature cannot agree on an education budget.

Another issue, according to Debar, is that local school districts need to know soon their amount of funding so they can begin process of renewing teacher contracts for the upcoming school year,

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