Barbour: State can get funds without paying

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour will apply for $98 million in federal education money even though he said earlier that the Democratic-controlled Congress was “hijacking” the state budget by approving the funds.
In a statement released late Thursday, Barbour said he had sent a letter to the state’s superintendents, school boards and legislators, saying he would apply for the federal funds that officials said could save as many as 2,000 teaching jobs in the state’s public schools.
Last week, when the federal legislation was passed, the Republican governor ripped Congress, saying that for Mississippi to get the money, it would have to expend as much as an additional $70 million in state funds on education.
He said it was an attempt to hijack the budget by forcing state officials to take money from other underfunded agencies to spend on education.
But in his statement, Barbour said, “The governor’s office has been assured by federal officials that Mississippi meets the requirements allowing states to access the funds. Initially, it appeared the state would be forced to shift money from other departments to qualify.”
When the legislation was passed, others doubted that Mississippi would have to spend additional funds on education to access the money.
“The governor should have paid attention to the language of the bill rather than accusing Congress of hijacking our budget,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who earlier in the day released a statement urging Barbour to apply for the money.
If Barbour had not applied for the funds, the federal Department of Education could have sent the money directly to the local school districts or to the Department of Education to be disbursed to the schools.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the funds could be used to hire teachers, to eliminate teacher furlough days or to rehire other school personnel that have been laid off during the current budget woes, including school librarians and cafeteria workers.
“This is good for the people of Mississippi and good for the school districts,” Brown said.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham said it is his understanding the money must be spent “at the school-building level” on salaries. He said federal officials said the state should receive the funds soon after applying for them.
Barbour said he would have voted against the legislation had he been in Congress. But since the legislation does not require the state to raise taxes or “make other negative policy changes … I believe Mississippians should receive the extra funds for education purposes,” the governor said in the news release.
The governor, though, urged local school districts to save the funds for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“Given that you have already finalized your school year budgets, contracts are in place, and you have identified funding sources to fund the executed budgets, please save these unexpected funds for the extremely difficult budget year in FY 12,” the governor wrote.
The legislation passed by Congress also includes another source of funds for Mississippi agencies, particularly for education.
The legislation reduces the match rate for the states to draw down federal Medicaid funds. That will free up state funds – as much as $150 million – to be used in other areas, particularly education.
On Thursday, Burnham said it could take additional state legislation for the state to spend the freed-up Medicaid funds on education.
Mississippi schools were underfunded by more than $230 million for the current school year because of the ongoing, dramatic drop in state tax collections.

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

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal