The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today in a lawsuit alleging that the state executive branch, including Gov. Phil Bryant, violated the state constitution by cutting the 2017 budget.
The lawsuit argues that Bryant made the cuts – including nearly $20 million from the state’s public school budget – without oversight or input from the Mississippi state Legislature, violating the state constitution’s mandate on separation of powers.
Between September 2016 and March 2017, Bryant and State Fiscal Officer Laura Jackson reduced the Legislature’s Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations by more than $170 million. In February and March 2017 alone, they decided to cut appropriations by $60 million, including roughly $20 million from Mississippi’s cash-strapped public school budget, which was roughly one third of the cuts made at that time.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2017 by the SPLC on behalf of Mississippi state Rep. Bryant W. Clark of Pickens and state Sen. John Horhn of Jackson, asks the court to strike down the statute under which Bryant enacted the cuts. Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, is making the oral arguments.
“As a state senator, I am responsible for passing a state budget each year,” Horhn said. “I believe that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is the most important component of the state budget. I do not know what analysis was conducted that allowed the governor to conclude that schools did not need this $20 million. Schools need this money. Without sufficient resources, school districts are unable to educate our children.”
Under Mississippi’s “strict” and “absolute” separation of powers doctrine, budget making is a legislative prerogative and responsibility. The Legislature’s budget-making decisions are “ultimate” and “final,” according to a 1983 Mississippi Supreme Court decision, (Alexander v. Allain), and if Mississippi wishes to make cuts to balance the budget, the Legislature is the only government entity that has the authority to do so, the lawmakers argued in briefs filed with the court.
“I believe that the most important component of the state budget is the funding for public schools,” Clark said. “By imposing midyear budget cuts on the state budget that the Legislature spent months developing and ultimately passed, Governor Bryant and State Fiscal Officer Laura Jackson prevent me from representing my constituents’ wishes in one of the most important responsibilities I have as a legislator. I don’t know what, if any, process the governor went through to make decisions related to these midyear budget cuts.”
Bardwell, of the SPLC, said: “The Legislature’s exclusive authority over budget making is well established, going back over a century. If midyear budget cuts are necessary to balance the state budget, they must be made by the state Legislature.”
Each side has 30 minutes for oral arguments.