Barbour, Senate eye ed funds for other uses

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Senate leadership and Gov. Haley Barbour want to use $65 million in federal funds to replace state money in the education budget.
The federal money is part of a $98 million allocation approved by Congress last year for local school districts to help make up for budget shortfalls.
By using those federal funds, Barbour and Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernado, are saying state funding for local school districts can be cut $65 million, with that money going to other uses in the upcoming fiscal year.
Late last year House and Senate leaders agreed to essentially level funding for the local school districts in what is going to be another difficult budget year.
But Davis is saying that level funding would include using $65 million in federal funds to supplant state funds that then could be used to prop up other state budgets.
House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said the federal funds were for the current fiscal year and the districts had the authority, in the federal legislation, to spend the funds this year.
Stringer said using the funds the way the Senate and the governor want to “is just going to result in a (property) tax increase on the local level.”
“I am trying to keep any unfunded mandates from going to the local level,” Stringer added. “I am not a member of the Tea Party, but I agree with what they are trying to do.”
Appropriators on both the House and Senate side began work Tuesday on developing a budget. The difference on education spending was one of many that surfaced during the opening of what is expected to be a difficult budgeting process, complicated by the absence of federal funds that have plugged budget holes during the economic slowdown.
This past summer Congress passed two pots of money to help states struggling with their budgets. Congress enhanced the portion of the Medicaid match the federal government would pay, freeing up $82 million in state funds, and provided $98 million directly to the local school districts that could be used to deal with budget woes, such as rehiring laid-off teachers.
Legislative leaders and Barbour agreed to save the $82 million for the upcoming budget year and appropriate the money during the 2011 session. Barbour urged school districts to save the $98 million, though he could not prevent them from spending it.
Barbour and Davis said about $65 million of those funds are available to appropriate for the upcoming year, in turn, freeing up state funds.
But Stringer said it is his understanding that about $40 million to $50 million is available and the school year is not over yet.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.