BOBBY HARRISON: Gunn’s special-needs ruling could have future impact

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

In the midst of the hurly burly of the final day of the 2014 legislative session last week, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, made a significant ruling.

But a written version of the speaker’s ruling is not available. The ruling, which Gunn halted House proceedings to contemplate overnight, was made after lunch the following day in a matter of seconds from the speaker’s podium.

The ruling came on an inquiry from Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who questioned whether a bill that would give $6,000 annually in the form of debit cards to some parents of special-needs children to pursue private school alternatives should require a two-thirds vote.

Section 66 of the Constitution states “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 ruled the legislation establishing the payments to the special-needs parents required only a simple majority vote because it was a legislative “policy issue.” He explained orally, but not in writing that “these particular schools would be fulfilling the function of educating children with special needs.”

There is no set procedure for how such inquiries are handled. But it was at least a bit unusual that Gunn asked Baria to provide in writing his views of why the vote should require a two-thirds super majority. In the past, normally in such instances in the House when the presiding officer has requested a written interpretation from a member, the speaker has responded in kind by providing in writing his ruling on the issue, and it is placed in the legislative journal.

In essence, Gunn said this particular issue did not rise to that level of requiring him to provide a written ruling even though he asked Baria to make his inquiry in writing. It should be pointed out that after Gunn’s ruling, which was viewed as controversial at least by some, the legislation could not even garner that simple majority to pass.

After the session ended, Gunn said that the special-needs legislation will not be an issue during the 2015 session, which will be an election year.

But at some point in the future, it most likely will be.

A significant number of Republicans support providing state vouchers to pay for students to attend private schools. Many public school advocates are adamantly opposed to taking money and, often the best students, out of the public schools.

Those people have on their side another state constitutional provision, Section 208, that many believe makes providing vouchers to private schools difficult. It states, “No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other education funds of this state, nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”

No doubt, some mighty good attorneys have the ability to twist words into a different meaning than what the average, everyday person believes they say. But it seems pretty clear the intent of the writers of the Constitution is to prevent public funds from going to any school that is “not a free school” regardless of whether it has a religious affiliation.

Accepting that as fact for the moment, then what alternative is there for supporters of vouchers? The answer might be to give money directly to parents for the sole purpose of using those funds to pay for a child’s education at a private school.

But requiring a two-thirds majority would make passage of such a controversial proposal very unlikely.

So at some point in the future, Gunn’s unwritten ruling might be an issue again.

Baria’s reasons for believing it should be a two-thirds vote will be available for public consideration. The reason for Gunn’s ruling will not be.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.

  • EJW

    Federal and State law requires schools to provide special needs students with specialized services. Federal and state dollars are spent so that schools will provide these services. When a school fails to provide these services, the bill gave the parents the option, I repeat, option, to move their child to a private institution that could better serve their needs. Speaker Gunn was correct in his position that these schools would be fulfilling a taxpayer funded function of public education that should already be occurring.