By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The fate of legislation that would provide $6,000 debit cards each year to the parents of special needs children to pursue private education options might hinge on a ruling from House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.
Gunn late Tuesday planned to take the night to allow the House legal staff to mull a point of order raised Tuesday by Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, that the proposal should require a two-thirds vote for passage (instead of a simple majority) under the state Constitution.
Section 66 of the Constitution states that “no law granting a donation or gratuity in favor of any person or object shall be enacted except by concurrence of two-thirds of the members.”
Gunn said late Tuesday he was not aware that there would be a point of order challenging whether it would take more than a simple majority to pass the legislation.
The special needs bill is one of the last items left for legislators to take up as they work this week to finish the 2014 session. And lobbying on the proposal is intense. It is doubtful that the legislation could pass if it requires a two-thirds vote.
Various education support groups, such as the Parents Campaign, argue that the bill establishes a voucher system that takes state funds away from a public school system that has been underfunded by $1.2 billion since 2008, not counting the $255 million shortfall in the budget passed earlier this week by legislators.
Special needs parents and others said the program would help special needs students who are not getting the educational services they need from the public schools.
The program is established as a pilot that would be capped at 500 parents for the first two years, and would be limited to 700 parents in four years. Supporters said various safeguards are included to ensure the funds are not misspent.
The intensity around the issue was evident from an e-mail sent to House members supporting the legislation from Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative public policy organization.
Thigpen urged House supporters to press their button signifying they wanted to ask questions about the legislation as soon as it came up for debate “so that the speaker can maybe alternate between friendly and hostile questioners.”
He also provided a script for the “friendly” questioner.
Thigpen said he sent out the e-mail because Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, the chief House sponsor of the proposal, “has gone to everyone in the world asking for help so we have tried to help anyway we could.”
On the other side, Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, has been aggressive in her opposition.
One email she sent told Parents Campaign supporters that legislators “need to hear from moms, dads, grandparents – all of us – that we do not want our tax dollars going to unaccountable private schools.”
The issue has gotten contentious in floor discussion as well. House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said on the House floor that superintendents who oppose the bill “don’t care about educating the children. They care more about the money.”
Moore painted the Parents Campaign with the same brush.