JACKSON, Miss. — A provision to increase funding by $2 million for Mississippi students with special education needs to attend private schools survived despite a last-ditch attempt to block it by opponents who claimed the move was sneaky and underhanded.
The controversy dominated the last day of the 2019 legislative session Friday. House members blocked the bill from advancing twice before enough members changed their votes to let it move forward. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant promises to sign the bill.
Opponents said including the $2 million in a special project list in Senate Bill 3049 was a trick pulled by Lt. Gov Tate Reeves and senators after representatives were assured funding wouldn’t be increased over the current $3 million. The outrage was hottest in the House, where members had been assured on earlier bills that no such language was present.
Rep. Jay Hughes, an Oxford Democrat running for lieutenant governor, told House members that allowing the money to go through meant “it’s OK to tell all working people in this state that you don’t have a single penny for any more raises but you have $2 million in discretionary funds that you can just stick in somewhere for a special donor.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn met with Republicans on Thursday after the $2 million became general knowledge and said the House Republican caucus voted not to overturn the deal. However, at times Friday, more than a dozen Republicans voted against the money.
“We need to listen to the people back home instead of letting Tate Reeves stick it to us,” said retiring Rep. Margaret Rogers, a New Albany Republican who opposed the measure.
More Republicans lined up with Gunn on each vote though, facing pressure to reverse themselves so the session could end.
Reeves and others noted the list of projects was handed out before votes in both chambers, and that it’s not their fault opponents didn’t notice and question it.
“It was a handout sitting on our desks,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, a Sumrall Republican, said Friday. “If you read it instead of chunking it in the trash, you knew what was in it.”
Supporters sought more money, saying parents who want to use the program have been unable to because there wasn’t enough money.
“This $2 million is going to eliminate the current waitlist in the Education Scholarship Accounts and that’s important,” Reeves said, adding that it would give some children a chance at a better education.
But House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett and others had opposed more money for the program, citing a report that raised questions about the program’s effectiveness and a renewal deadline next year.
Empower Mississippi, a group that promotes school choice and invested substantially in state elections in 2015, had lobbied heavily for the increased funding.
“Today was a victory for educational freedom and parent choice that will have benefits for the entire state,” Empower President Grant Callen said in a statement. “We especially thank Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for his leadership.”
Teacher groups, though, vowed electoral opposition for Reeves and others who supported the move.
“Several members of the Senate leadership are going to be asking for your vote later this year, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves who is running for governor,” Mississippi Professional Educators Executive Director Kelly Riley wrote. “It is critical that educators hold the Senate leadership accountable for such tactics when they exercise their right to vote later this year.”