LEGISLATORS WEIGH MEASURES TO MEET AYERS MANDATES
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Mississippi legislators say they are making a good faith effort to show the federal courts that they are willing to settle the 21-year-old Ayers college desegregation lawsuit.
At least three different funding measures aimed at meeting some of the requirements mandated by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers in his Ayers ruling are making their way through the legislative process.
Measures are alive in both the House and Senate to provide a total of more than $4 million to fund various aspects of the settlement. But a bill also will be filed to provide $15 million in bonding authority to go toward the Ayers settlement. That bill would not kick in until the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered a final decision in the appeal of the case.
“The purpose of the ($15 million bond bill) is to show that we intend to comply with the federal courts as soon as they tell us what to do,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, chairman of the Finance Committee.
The bond bill would have to pass through Bryan’s Finance Committee.
The total of more than $19 million being considered by the Legislature would come close to the $21 million requested in October by the state College Board to settle the case. But in October, members of the Legislative Budget Committee, which consists of key legislators and the lieutenant governor, said they thought it would be appropriate to wait until the case was settled before providing funds.
In recent days, the Legislature has demonstrated a dramatic reversal.
House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, said the reason for that reversal is because lawyers for the Institutions of Higher Learning indicated it would be important to show “a good faith effort” to carry out Biggers’ orders.
“It seems like the right thing to do,” Ford said.
Last March, Biggers ordered new programs and spending at historically black Jackson State University and Alcorn State University and new uniform admission standards for all eight state schools. His order was an attempt to settle the 1975 lawsuit that claimed Mississippi’s college system was segregated.
The lawsuit, filed by the late Jake Ayers Jr. on behalf of his son, already has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the college system was segregated. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Biggers to remedy the problem from his Oxford courtroom.
Now Biggers’ ruling is being appealed to the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans by plaintiffs in the case.
Trying to comply
Despite that pending appeal, the Legislature is now working to comply with Biggers’ order.
The House Appropriations Committee voted on Tuesday to provide about $2 million to provide new programs at Jackson State and Alcorn State. Under the House plan, JSU would get programs in business, social work, urban planning and allied health. Alcorn State would get a master’s degree program in business administration. Money for the first year of the programs would come out of a fund established to pay for court rulings against the state.
Ford said the JSU and ASU programs would cost more in future years as the number of classes increased.
In the Senate, funds are being transferred to create a summer remedial program to help meet the stricter academic standards established by Biggers. The transfer of about $2 million is of money already in the Institutions of Higher Learning budget.
While the House and Senate action is a start, the $15 million bond bill would go a long way in settling the lawsuit. The bond bill would establish endowments at both Jackson State and Alcorn State, as ordered by Biggers, and provide for other improvements.
“I think these are a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point. “I expect before we leave here that we will pass a bill that will address the points of the judge’s order that are not contested.”
Apparently, the action of the Legislature has the approval of Gov. Kirk Fordice. An attorney for Fordice, Greg Hinkebein, said “the most important thing to (the governor) involving Ayers is to end it.”
And officials with the state College Board also are pleased. Marilyn Beach, a spokeswoman, said the College Board “was appreciative.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled a September hearing to discuss the case.