Saturday, March 11, 2006
On Thursday, March 9, 2006, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, started a crusade. Flaggs started having all the Appropriations bills read that evening for one purpose: to demand that Mississippi does right by her children.
Earlier in the week, the House passed an amendment to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) bill proposed by Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Tupelo, to fully fund MAEP for the next fiscal year. Mississippi has only fully funded the program once since its inception in 1997, that was in 2003, an election year. The program is designed to be a supplement to the state's school districts to help offset costs such as insurance and salary raises.
The burden of the shortcomings in funding has fallen on the districts, which then passes the burden to the local taxpayers through their ability to raise ad valorem taxes. The House voted overwhemingly, basically along party lines, to support Franks' amendment, much to the opposition of the Education Committee chairman, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who had offered a phase-in proposal to fully fund the program within the next four years.
But Brown did not give up. On Thursday, the bill was reconsidered to add another amendment by Brown, which would fully fund MAEP this year, but would create a caveat that if it was not funded, then the four-year phase-in would kick in. I supported Franks' amendment and opposed both of Brown's proposals. Brown's second proposal passed and that is when Flaggs started his protest. He said that he will have all the bills read from this point forward until MAEP is fully funded.
Reading the bills is a constitutional right of any legislator. I have used it personally as a weapon of protest and strategy. It quite simply slows the process down to a crawl. It was a key strategy I used in securing an additional $900,000 for Jackson State University in 2003. So it is not uncommon for that form of legislative gamesmanship to be used. What is uncommon is it being used for an extended length of time. Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, had the bills read for a week, when he was a member of the House, forcing the Mississippi Legislature to create a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
What is expected is a backlash, and that is what Rep. Flaggs is receiving. There is talk that he is jeopardizing his chances on being Speaker Pro Tempore next term. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, offered an amendment to shut down all of the casinos in Warren County, which he later withdrew. He has been badgered by members with dilatory questions when he has had to handle bills on the floor. Yet he remains undaunted.
The protests have survived for two days now and tempers are flaring. It is only a matter of time when something has to give. It is my hope that it will not be Rep. Flaggs, for the sake of the children of Mississippi. Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution guarantees that every citizen is entitled to a free public education. It is time we honored that commitment.
Kudos to Rep. Flaggs. I'm glad the current debate at least centers on whether to fund MAEP right away or phase it in, rather than whether or not to fund it at all, but I'm wary of "Buy me a hamburger and I'll pay you Tuesday" style approaches to education funding because they haven't worked in the past (how long did it take to finally get that promised teacher pay raise?). Here's hoping Rep. Flaggs wins this fight. I knew Sen. Frazier was the man responsible for creating the MLK holiday in this state, but I didn't realize he had to do so in such a dramatic fashion. Shades of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Cheers, TH
- Tom Head
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