Budget Deal Undercuts Education | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Budget Deal Undercuts Education

The Mississippi Legislature left the state capitol with a $4.6 billion budget finally hammered into shape May 28 after a nine-day, $347,000 special session. The session was called into order specifically by Gov. Haley Barbour to deal with Momentum Mississippi, a telemarketer no-call list and other priorities. Initially, Barbour's call did not include either the budget or the state's under-funded education system.

By May 27, however, the Senate had approved a House education bill with no debate, providing almost $2 billion for schools. While considered an increase over earlier, more conservative, propositions, the money is still less than many education advocates desired.

"Under the conditions I think it was a pretty good budget, but I'm absolutely not pleased with it in terms what it does for education," said George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg. "We can't just walk away from education. It should be a priority with economic development every time we open the door. I think we allowed Momentum Mississippi to get in the way of education. It should be 'Education/Momentum Mississippi,' because you can't have good economic development without a good education base."

Senate Education Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said he was OK with the education funding under the circumstances. "It's essentially the same bill the House had approved during the regular session with a couple of exceptions," Chaney said. "We did provide for insurance and retirement, which is about $29 million that's not reflected there. It's a pretty good bill."

While the budget provided funds for rising health insurance and retirement costs, it also cut several agencies' budgets in amounts from 1 percent to 75 percent, despite a revised revenue outlook giving the Legislature an additional $36 million and the unexpected financial windfall of a $100 million settlement for tax fraud from now defunct WorldCom.

"Many of our agencies that provide needed services to our citizens will face financial hardships in the fiscal year ahead," House Speaker Billy McCoy told reporters.

Supporters for more funding for state services argued that tax increases would have made connecting the ends easier. They also pointed out that a majority of the state's population approved of some kind of tax increase, either through a $1-a-pack cigarette tax or some other means that relieves pressure from disproportionately high local taxes.

"This governor will not allow us to raise any new revenue to fund what we have. Yet he is pumping up tax credits, deductions and increased borrowing to fund private businesses with taxpayer money while proposing to cut Medicaid, mental health and other agencies which serve the taxpayers," said Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, in a statement.

Other measures passed during the special session included a military relief fund to aid families hurt by spouses being called up for the war; vulnerable adult training investigation; and a prosecution trust fund for training law enforcement and prosecuting such crimes.

Barbour's pro-business pet project, Momentum Mississippi (see page 10), was stalled by the House after the Senate voted to strip $98 million in added projects that House members tacked onto it late last week. Barbour had referred to the additions, which had included infrastructure and hometown projects, as "pork."

House members criticized the Senate's strip-down of their additions to the $27 million economic-development bill because the cuts excluded money for Northrop Grumman shipbuilders and Baxter Pharmaceutical. Barbour is a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and called a special session last summer to help Northrup Grumman.

"While the agreed-upon budget differs in many ways from what I proposed, it is a budget I can sign," Barbour said in a statement. "We have almost climbed out of the terrible budget hole that was dug in recent years. Not quite, but almost."

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