OPINION: Special consolidation session appears probable, and heated

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Haley Barbour has called far more special sessions than any prior Mississippi governor.
If one of the more controversial proposals Barbour has made to deal with the current unprecedented state budget woes is to come to fruition, it most likely will have to occur in a special session.
And a special session on the issue of school district consolidation could be one of the most contentious in state history.
The obvious question is why there is talk about a special session when the 2010 regular session has just begun. The answer to that question is simple – timing.
Back in November, the Republican governor proposed reducing the number of school districts by roughly one-third, from 152 to 100.
School district consolidation has been advocated by different groups for years, but has never seriously been considered by the Legislature. And until recently, the governor has never talked much about the issue.
But now the governor is talking about consolidation. Barbour has proposed that the consolidation take place at the start of the 2011-12 school year as a device to save money during what is expected to be a prolonged period of state budget woes.
In December, the governor formed a commission, chaired by Tupelo banker Aubrey Patterson, to look at the issue. The commission is scheduled to meet later this month and produce a report by April 1.
If the Legislature completes its work in 90 days as scheduled, it would be just about impossible for it to act on the commission’s report during the 2010 regular session.
Patterson said the issue is important enough to be taken up in a special session.
True, it is an important issue – important enough to merit its own special session. But it is important to understand that the dynamics of a special session are different.
In a regular session, there are carefully structured deadlines for legislators to act at various stages in the long and complex process on bills. Those deadlines serve a vital purpose. A pending deadline spurs members to act.
A special session has no deadlines. Members on opposing sides can engage in a legislative game of chicken – waiting for the other to act.
Days can become weeks and weeks can become months.
It doesn’t happen that way often, but a special session always has that possibility; see the 83-day special session in 2002 on changes to the civil justice system as an example of what can happen.
During Barbour’s tenure, there have been instances where special sessions went on much longer than expected – on bond projects for example.
No doubt, school district consolidation would be one of the most controversial – and indeed, most important – matters ever taken up during a special session.
If the Legislature is still in the midst of a regular session in April, which could happen because of the very real possibility that members will not be able to agree on a budget, school district consolidation could be addressed then.
But at that point in the regular session legislative process it would take a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules to take up the issue.
The most likely scenario is that if Barbour is serious about the issue he will have to call a special session to deal with it.
Since he is proposing consolidation for the 2011-12 school year, it could theoretically be taken up during the 2011 regular session. But Barbour has said that it should be dealt with this year if the plan is to enact it during the 2011-12 school year.
He is right.
Even if the Legislature agrees to consolidation, there still will be a lot of hoops to jump through. Mississippi has a hodgepodge of different types of school districts – some with elected school boards and superintendents, some with appointed school boards and superintendents, some with a combination of the two.
Voting rights would be an issue in consolidation. That means under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice would be involved in any consolidation effort. That process is often slow and cumbersome and opens up the possibility of court fights.
Plus, if two school districts merge and one has a tax rate much higher than the other, how would that issue be resolved?
For consolidation to be put in place for the 2011-12 school year, it would just about have to be agreed to sometime this year to provide time to work out all the kinks.
That statement has nothing to do with the merits of the proposal, just the mechanics of enacting it.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.

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