Barbour Wants $100 Million Cuts in Education, Mental Health

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Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, warns that cuts mandated by Gov. Barbour's budget means stiff cuts to education and possible property tax increases.

Gov. Haley Barbour wants to cut more than $100 million from education, mental health and other state services.

Under his plan, public education faces another $30 million in crucial cuts to K-12 teachers' supply funds, building and bus maintenance, and a statewide property tax subsidy that could ultimately increase property taxes on the local level. Barbour advocated fully funding the state's Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, which evenly distributes state money according to local needs, but the governor pushed House Democrats last week to cut another $6 million from the teacher supply fund, which helps teachers pay for classroom learning materials. He also wants $16 million removed from schools' building and bus maintenance budgets, and to cut by $8 million a state subsidy that helps keep down local property taxes that fund education.

"This is a shell game, providing level funding for MAEP but taking other money from school budgets," said Nancy Loome, executive director for education advocacy group The Parents' Campaign, in a statement. "This is no better for schools than taking money directly from MAEP. It is still a budget cut."

House lawmakers were furious Saturday after learning that Senate negotiators backed Barbour on the additional cuts, weeks after the Senate agreed to a budget funding K-12 at $2.2 billion--the same funding K-12 received last year. House members were unwilling to agree to the new cuts, and the subsequent collapse in discussions extended debate beyond the Saturday legislative deadline for agreeing on a budget. House members say Senate conferees, in reversing their own decision at Barbour's whim, are no longer a component of the process, and that the House instead should be debating the issue with the governor, who virtually speaks for the Senate.

Stringer and House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, complained Friday that Barbour's move to cut $8 million from the state property tax subsidy, combined with his call to cut another $18 million from the state's $87 million homestead-exemption program, will inevitably lead to local property tax hikes.

"People aren't stupid," Stringer said. "They know now that if the state doesn't pay, then they'll pay at home, and they don't want that."

Barbour, meanwhile, appears unwilling to back away from the cuts, even at the sacrifice of a legislative deadline.

"No budget is better than a bad budget. There is still plenty of time for the House and Senate to agree with me on a responsible budget that reduces expenditures and maintains reserves while adequately funding the priorities of our state," Barbour said in a statement March 26, the day of the deadline.

The governor also seeks to fund universities at $30 million less than the $720 million target figure the House approved, and to cut between $5 million and $10 million from university agriculture programs. Stringer said he was not sure if the agriculture cuts included cuts at Alcorn State University, but he was certain they would target agriculture programs at Mississippi State University.

In addition, Barbour seeks to remove $20 million that the House allocated to the state's mental health facilities, potentially closing some facilities.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health has already suffered more than $20 million in cuts, Debbie Ferguson, executive director of the Central Mississippi Residential Center, said in October. She said she doubted if her facility in Newton, which provides an adult day-care program for Alzheimer's patients in addition to other services and living facilities for the mentally ill, could keep its doors open after additional cuts.

Other facilities that could suffer or close under the cuts to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health include the Mississippi Adolescent Center in Brookhaven, the North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo, South Mississippi State Hospital in Purvis, the Brookhaven Crisis Center and the Cleveland Crisis Center.

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