Rep. David Baria asked the attorney general “does the Department of Education have the authority to redirect the identified funds to a fictitious program?”

State Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, is asking for an official opinion from Attorney General Jim Hood on whether funds can be used for a program that sends public money to private schools since the program was misnamed in the legislation appropriating the funds.

In the final days of the legislative session last week, the Republican leadership sneaked into the appropriations bill for the Department of Finance and Administration language to transfer $2 million to the Department of Education for the Education Savings Account.

The only problem is no such program exists.

The leadership meant for the funds to be used for the Education Scholarship Account, which provides public funds for special education students to pursue private education options.

An official opinion of the attorney general’s office does not carry the weight of law, but provides some protection for public officials who adhere to the opinions. In the past, the Department of Finance and Administration has followed the opinion of the attorney general.

Baria, the House Democrat leader, asked the attorney general “does the Department of Education have the authority to redirect the identified funds to a fictitious program?”

To add to the possible confusion, Baria pointed out there are other similarly named programs in state law, such as the Mississippi Affordable College Savings program. And finally he asked since there was no explanation of the $2 million when the Finance and Administration budget was presented to members before their vote how could legislative intent be known?

The issue created fireworks last Thursday and Friday as leaders slipped the $2 million into the Department of Finance and Administration budget bill to increase funding for the voucher program. The membership was not told the funds were in the budget bill for the department which oversees the state’s finances. And apparently in the haste by members of the leadership to add the language in the waning days of the session, they did not realize the program was not correctly named.

Laura Hipp, a spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, said the misnaming of the program “is much ado about nothing. It is a typo, and I am sure it can be fixed as typos (in legislation) often are.”

Meg Annison, a spokesperson for Speaker Philip Gunn, agreed, saying mistakes can be fixed as long as such action does not change policy.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who has been an outspoken opponent of the voucher program, also said that there were methods in the legislative process to fix such obvious mistakes.

“Fixing something like this in enrolling is not improper,” said Bryan. The enrolling process is conducted after the bill passes both chambers before it is sent to the governor for his signature.

A matter of fact, on the legislative web page, the version of the bill going to the governor has the program properly named. The earlier version voted on by the members last week shows the program by the incorrect name.

Often in the final days of the legislative session, committee chairs ask for unanimous consent to fix obvious mistakes. No such effort was undertaken with the voucher language. It is not likely that such a request would have garnered unanimous consent from legislators who were upset with the fact the language was put in the bill without them being informed.

The agreement including the secretive language was placed in a 20-plus page bill that was filed at 5 p.m. Thursday and passed within the hour.

Supporters of the program, such as Reeves, say the ESA program helps special needs students who struggle in public schools. Opponents say it takes funds away from public schools and provides only limited help since the program aids a very small percentage of the more than 60,000 special education students.

The fact that the office of Democratic Attorney General Hood is being asked to weigh in on the controversy is intensified since the Republican Reeves was the primary advocate of including the language in the appropriations bill. Reeves and Hood are considered their parties’ favorites in the governor race later this year.

Hood has often said a panel of senior staff members rule on the official opinion requests made to his agency.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.