ATLANTA -- Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice overstepped the state constitution in using a line-item veto to reject $60.4 million of general obligation debt, a state judge has ruled.

In response to a lawsuit find against the governor by three state legislators, Judge Chet Dillard of Hinds County Chancery Court ruled last Monday that Fordice went beyond his powers as governor when be gutted a $73.9 million bond authorization approved by the Legislature in April.

Fordice contended that bond bills count as appropriations bills, since they call for state money to be spent on debt service. Under Article 4, Section 73 of the Mississippi Constitution, appropriations bills are subject to a gubernatorial line-item veto. Fordice is the state's first governor to call on this power to veto debt.

In a ruling delivered immediately after a hearing on the matter, Dillard agreed with the plaintiffs, pointedly rejecting Fordice's claim that a legislative authorization of bonds constitutes an appropriation.

"In this court's opinion, there is no question that the bond bills were bond bills and the appropriations bills were appropriations bills, if for no other reason than the Legislature said so," Dillard said, according to a transcript of his remarks. He has not yet issued a written order on the matter, according to the court.

Fordice's spokesman, John Arledge, said yesterday that the governor would appeal the ruling within the 30 days allotted under Mississippi law.

"We will appeal because we think the issue ought now to be heard by the [state] Supreme Court," Arledge said. "But we still maintain that the proper forum for this issue is not the courts but the Legislature, which has the power to override the governor's vetoes."

Under Mississippi's judicial system, lower court cases are appealed directly to the state high court.

Otis Tims, attorney for the plaintiffs, Sen. Hobb Bryan, D-Amory, Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, and Rep. Glynn E. Endris, D-Biloxi, hailed Dillard's ruling. Times said he is prepared to contest an appeal.

"The ruling was very clear in holding that the governor's use of the Section 73 partial veto power was improper," Tims said. "I am confident that we would also prevail in the [state] Supreme Court."

State Treasurer Marshall Bennett also said he welcomes a state Supreme Court test of the bonds.

"I think the Supreme Court review is a step we need to go through to definitively resolve this issue," Bennett said. "If the people of Mississippi want the governor to have this kind of line-item veto power, the proper vehicle would be a constitutional amendment."

Fordice's April 19 veto cut $57.6 million out of $65.9 million of general obligation bonds approved for colleges and $2.8 million out of $8 million of GOs approved for historic sites. The two bond bills were passed at the end of Mississippi's 1993 regular legislative session, which adjourned April 2.

In a memo explaining his vetoes to the Legislature, Fordice said he had cut the two bond authorizations because he considered many of the projects approved by lawmakers to be inappropriate or wasteful.

Fordice also noted that the 1993 debt legislation followed $98 million of GO debt approved by the Legislature in 1992. Fordice vetoed the entire 1992 authorization, but the bill became law after the Legislature overrode his veto.

Shortly after the governor's 1993 bond veto, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore issued an opinion in May that declared the action "null and void" and that the legislation could become law July 1.

Moore was not available for comment yesterday, but in his eight-page ruling dated May 11, he insisted that case law in Mississippi does not back the interpretation that bond legislation constitutes an appropriation.

In July, Bryan, Horhn, and Endris filed the lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court contesting the governor's action.

Bennett said the state Bond Commission would not seek to sell the $60.4 million of Gos before the dispute over the use of veto power is "clearly settled in the courts."

The treasurer said that if the governor does not file an appeal before the 30-day appeal period lapses, the Chancery Court ruling will stand and the bonds could be sold.

In a related development, Bennett said that Mississippi is moving forward with selling the $13.5 million of bonds included in the two bills partially vetoed by Fordice but left untouched by the veto.

Bennett said these bonds, along with $11.5 million of debt from separate legislation approved for a fairgrounds complex, would be sold in a competitive sale at the next meeting of the state Bond Commission on Dec. 2.

The Bond Commission comprises Bennett, Moore, and Fordice.

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