They Could Care Less | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

They Could Care Less

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, was right. The Mississippi Legislature passed a $3.7 million budget in the nick of time—on Mother's Day as he had predicted. Lawmakers finally agreed at the 11th hour of the 120-day session on the big items they had been stuck on—education and Medicaid—leaving tort reform for a probable special session.

Late into last Sunday evening, lawmakers struggled with secondary education, but still didn't fully fund it. School districts will have to deal with a $46 million shortfall, and many lawmakers were not ecstatic about the bill that financed public schools at $110 million instead of the $161 million that would have funded them at their current levels.

From the floor Sunday night, Education Committee Chairman Bubba Pierce, D-Leakesville, urged his colleagues to vote for the bill that he didn't like. "I didn't want to sign it," he said. "But it scares me to death to be in special session on education. $110 million is the best we can get—vote for it."

The adopted budget will fund only half of the teachers' 8-percent pay raises and cut about 110 positions from the state Department of Education.

The education bill passed the House by a 111-to-8 vote. Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, had asked his colleagues to cut their own pay if they were going to cut school districts. Seven senators also did not vote for the bill. Sen Alice Harden, D-Hinds, says it sends the wrong message to school districts. "We made a commitment to fund teacher pay raises at 8 percent, and now we're telling these school districts: 'you pay for the raises and you find the money any place you can,'" Harden said.

Sen. Johnnie Walls, D-Greenville, said the bill would hurt small school districts, particularly in poor areas like the Delta. "We found the money for Corrections and Medicaid. I think, proportionately, education took a bigger hit," he said.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said that he didn't think the best deal was struck for education and that small and poor districts will struggle mightily. "They could care less," he said of lawmakers who negotiated the bill. "They're willing to pay $20,000 a year for a prisoner, but won't pay $6,000 a year for a student. Even a monkey with a tin head has more sense than that."

Jordan, a member of the Senate Education Committee and a retired teacher, says he understands personally how this budget will hurt schools. "I know what it is to have 30 kids in a class and not to have enough supplies," he said, adding: "Public education is the only way up and out; it should have been fully funded."

Judy Rhodes, director of the Educational Accountability Office for the state Department of Education, said education, like other state agencies, has been "seriously" underfunded, but that the state would not know for a couple of months what impact cuts would have on each district.

"I'm worried about some of those smaller districts and some others that are not in good shape," she said, "and whether this could force them into a deficit situation."

Rhodes said schools across the state handed out about 2,000 pink slips to teachers, and that they will probably look at their staff again based on the budget that passed "decide what they can do based on their allotment."

Lawmakers also struggled with Medicaid all session. The Medicaid bill is supposed to save the division $110 million dollars, but it pushes 65,000 Medicaid recipients off the roles and on to the federal Medicare program for the elderly and disabled. The problem is that about 5,000 of them might not immediately be covered under Medicare. Lawmakers have said they will get waivers, but advocates for the poor say that legislators can't guarantee that they can.

Flaggs said that people will not be allowed to fall through the cracks. "I am absolutely, positively clear that there is a safety net," he said. And if what lawmakers have put in place doesn't work, they will fix it, he said. "I don't believe that the governor wouldn't call a special session if what we have isn't working. He has to be sensitive."

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a member of the House Medicaid Committee, is not going to depend on Barbour's sensitivity to provide the waivers he says are crucial. "I'm going to stay on his Republican ass," he said. "I'm going to hound him night and day."

Legislators also stalled over mental health money, largely because of crisis centers that are sitting vacant because there are no funds to staff them. People who could have been admitted to the centers are sometimes housed in county jails for weeks. Lawmakers funded the centers at $12.8 million—about half of what the state Department of Mental Health said it needed.

"We're pretty happy about it," said Glynn Kegley, chief of the Bureau of Administration. The $12.8 million will allow the department to open six of the centers at half of their capacities or to fill eight beds in each. The department also will be able to open 20 beds in a crisis center on the Gulf Coast for younger children with emotional problems.

Lawmakers loudly complained about Barbour's requests for money for a new aircraft, the Mansion and his office staff. He wanted $3.5 million to negotiate for another aircraft. The state already owns two King Air jets and a Lear jet. Barbour wants to be able to negotiate for another craft if it is more cost effective than maintaining the three aging jets, according to Flaggs. Barbour also requested $3.2 million for the Mansion and his office staff.

Tort reform died this session, but Barbour has said he will call a special session to deal with it. Legislators also didn't agree on some bond bills that would fund economic development and colleges and universities. Those could be revived in a special session, as well.

The budget now goes to the governor.

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