By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Jackson attorney Michael Wallace, hired by the Legislative leadership to contest the ballot title language approved by a Hinds County circuit judge for a legislative alternative to a citizen-sponsored initiative, was paid $60,222.01 in state funds.
In response to questions by the Daily Journal, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, revealed Wallace was paid from “Joint House and Senate legislative funds.”
The House Management Committee and Senate Rules Committee, the two panels that handle the day-to-day operations of the two chambers, voted in late March to hire Wallace “for not more than $400 per hour.”
Legislative Democrats opposed the decision, but were unsuccessful in blocking it.
According to legislative records, Wallace billed the state about 300 hours between late March and August when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Wallace was hired after Adrian Shipman, a mother of two in the Oxford Public School District, filed a lawsuit contesting the title given to the legislative alternative to a citizen-sponsored education funding initiative. Shipman contended the ballot title, which is what voters will see when they go to the polls in November, was misleading.
Shipman was represented by 42 For Better Schools, a private group that is advocating for the citizen-sponsored Initiative 42 designed to enhance the state’s commitment to public education.
Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd agreed with Shipman and changed the language. Attorney General Jim Hood did not challenge Kidd’s decision, saying he had no problem with the new ballot title.
But Wallace, on behalf of the legislative leadership, appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, where he prevailed. The state’s highest court, in a split decision, ruled in mid-August that, though the law is confusing, Kidd did not have the authority to change the ballot title.
On hiring Wallace and paying him more than $60,000 in state funds, Gunn said, “Remember, the Legislature was sued. We had to defend ourselves because the attorney general refused to defend us. We won at the Supreme Court level, so we were proven to be correct in defending ourselves and incurring these expenditures.”
Patsy Brumfield, a spokeswoman for 42 For Better Schools, said, “this $60,000 expense paid by the people of Mississippi is just the tip of the iceberg for the campaign to defeat adequate funding for our schools. That $60,000 is enough for two first-year teachers or 600 textbooks or 200 classroom computers for our schools.”
Brumfield pointed out that 42 For Better Schools had filed a public records request of Gunn and Reeves to ascertain what other efforts they have undertaken to defeat the citizen-sponsored initiative. Gunn and Reeves have refused to release correspondence related to the initiative, citing state law that exempts the Legislature from the public records law.
On behalf of Reeves, spokeswoman Laura Hipp said, “It is safe to say that the overreach of one Hinds County judge cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and if Initiative 42 passes, it is going to cost taxpayers millions more in legal fees over the next 50 years.”
Initiative 42 will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. It is designed to place in the state Constitution a greater commitment to public education – similar to what is in other state constitutions, according to the supporters of Initiative 42. The legislative leadership, for the first time in the state’s history, pushed through the Legislature an alternative to Initiative 42, which also will be on the ballot.
Education has been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008, based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, Initiative 42 supporters say.