Miss. pays over $60K to defend lawmakers in ballot dispute

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Public records show the state has paid more than $60,000 to defend Mississippi legislative leaders in a legal dispute over school funding amendments.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (http://bit.ly/1idfaQe ) requested House and Senate spending records, which show the state paid Jackson attorney Michael Wallace $60,222 between March and August.

The legal dispute was over the summary that voters will see in the Nov. 3 general election, when two school funding proposals are on the ballot.

Initiative 42 reached the ballot through citizen-led petitions, and supporters say it's a way to force lawmakers to fully fund an education budget formula that has been ignored most years since it was put into law in 1997. The summary for Initiative 42 says the state must provide "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools." It also stipulates that people could sue the state if education funding falls short

An alternative, 42-A, was put on the November ballot by the Republican-led Legislature. The original summary for 42-A, written by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, said lawmakers must fund "effective free public schools."

Lawmakers hired Wallace after Oxford parent Adrian Shipman sued to challenge the ballot summary of 42-A.

Shipman contended the original summary was misleading, and a Hinds County circuit judge agreed and rewrote it. In a split decision Aug. 13, the state Supreme Court ruled that the circuit judge should not have rewritten the summary for the alternative. The ruling means the original summary 42-A will appear on the ballot.

Shipman's legal bills were paid by 42 For Better Schools, a private group pushing Initiative 42.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said lawmakers had a right to defend themselves.

"Remember, the Legislature was sued," Gunn said. "We had to defend ourselves because the attorney general refused to defend us. We won at the Supreme Court level, so we were proven to be correct in defending ourselves and incurring these expenditures."

The House Management Committee and Senate Rules Committee voted in March to hire Wallace "for not more than $400 per hour." Legislative Democrats opposed the decision, but could not block it.

Patsy Brumfield, a spokeswoman for 42 For Better Schools, criticized lawmakers for spending state money on legal expenses.

"This $60,000 expense paid by the people of Mississippi is just the tip of the iceberg for the campaign to defeat adequate funding for our schools," Brumfield said. "That $60,000 is enough for two first-year teachers or 600 textbooks or 200 classroom computers for our schools."


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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