Legislators give up effort to block funds sneaked in budget for private school program

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Reeves speaks at a school choice rally in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 24, 2017.

Those trying to block a $2 million increase for a program that sends public funds to private schools for special needs students say they have given up on their efforts.

The extra $2 million for the Education Scholarship Account program, sneaked into legislation in the final days of the 2019 session by legislative leaders, will be available for the next school year. In the summer, the Department of Education will announce a process for parents to apply for the vouchers.

Both Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis and Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, say they have withdrawn requests for opinions from Attorney General Jim Hood’s office asking if the $2 million could be spent since the legislation providing the money incorrectly named the program.

In the legislation, as it passed the House and Senate on the final day of the session in late March, the program was labeled the Education Savings Account instead of Education Scholarship Account. But apparently, before the legislation was “enrolled” to be sent Gov. Phil Bryant, the name was corrected.

“I got a call from the Attorney General’s office saying ‘we have to base the opinion on the bill as it was sent to the governor,’” Baria said. Based on that information, Baria said he did not see any need to pursue the issue. Simmons said he concurred.

In the meantime, some members of the House leadership were quietly questioning whether the Department of Education had “spending authority” to appropriate the funds. The state Constitution mandates that each appropriations bill “fix definitely the maximum sum” that can be spent.

The issue is that the additional money for the program was tucked into the budget for the Department of Finance and Administration to be transferred to the Department of Education to spend on the voucher program.

But some questioned whether the Education Department had authority to spend more than the original $3 million that was in its budget for the Special Education Account. As it turned out, the Education Department was provided more “spending authority” than was actually appropriated by the Legislature.

In other words the agency had a cushion to spend more than was appropriated, according to various sources.

The questions about the misnaming of the program and about whether the spending authority exists, highlight problems with sneaking the controversial program into legislation in the waning days of the session, according to many.

“I think this is no way to run a railroad,” Baria said. “The people’s business should be done in the open. When you run around in secret conference committees, something like this happens. People have improper motives so they sneak this in and you have something like this happening.”

Opponents say the program takes funds away from underfunded public schools. Supporters say the funds help special needs students whose needs are not being met in the public schools.

A report by the Legislature’s Performance  Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee had questioned the accountability measures connected to the program. The Legislature made no effort during the 2019 session to address those concerns.

Most legislators, including House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, and House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said they did not know the Education Scholarship Account funding was in the budget for the Department of Finance and Administration.

When asked how the program ended up in the DFA budget bill, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a staunch advocate for the program, said “it was typed in, like every other project.”