BOBBY HARRISON: Some politicians pulling the rug from under local school districts

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – For a while, things looked too good to be true when it came to legislative leaders agreeing on a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
This past fall, House and Senate leaders agreed on a budget proposal, a framework for the full Legislature to consider when adopting a budget to fund the essentials of state government, such as education, the Department of Public Safety and Medicaid.
But alas, the truth has come out. In recent years, nothing has been easy when dealing with the state budget and this session probably will not be any different.
The fight this year could center on $98 million in federal funds Congress approved for Mississippi school districts this past summer to curtail teacher layoffs and other cuts in education.
This past fall, the Senate leadership of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and new Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, agreed with the House leadership that the goal was to keep education funding level in what will be another year where there is not enough state revenue to meet needs.
Now, it should be pointed out that level funding is more than $230 million less than full funding of the Adequate Education Program for the current year and will be more than that less than full funding for the budget year beginning July 1.
Davis says now he agrees with Gov. Haley Barbour that $65 million of that $98 million in federal funding the school districts received this past summer should be used to supplant state funds in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. In other words, Davis is for level funding minus the $65 million that will be made up in federal funds.
It might be appropriate at this pointed to provide a little history of those federal funds.
During the 2010 session, it was anticipated that Congress would provide the states additional stimulus money to plug budget holes. But that money was not approved by Congress before the state legislative session ended.
The Legislature passed a bill, agreed to by all of the leadership and by the governor, to give $82 million of that anticipated additional stimulus funds to local school districts to make up a part of that $230 million shortfall.
Congress did finally approve the additional stimulus funds, but later than anticipated. Barbour, citing a technicality in the state legislation, said he did not have to give school districts the funds for this school year even though that plainly was not the intent of the bill that was passed and that he signed into law. He instead is saving the money for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
About the same time Congress approved the additional stimulus funds, it created another pot of money – the $98 million for local school districts in Mississippi – as stated before, to help curtail state budget cuts. Barbour urged the school districts also not to spend those funds, but since that money went directly to the school districts he could not prevent the expenditure.
But now he and the Senate leadership are saying $65 million of that $98 million should be available for the upcoming fiscal year to supplant state funds.
The state Department of Education disputes that figure, saying about $50 million might still be available. But those funds can be spent this year by school districts.
The latest saga with the federal funds is another example of the rug being pulled out from under local school districts.
In 2007 every politician from Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant to Speaker Billy McCoy campaigned on the promise that full funding of public education would no longer be an issue. Now that full funding was reached in the 2007 session, it would be easy to maintain that level, nearly every politician running for statewide office promised.
But in fairness to those politicians, nobody could have foreseen the depths of the economic downturn that started in 2008 and resulted in an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections.
Still, as late as April or May of 2009, Barbour still was promising, thanks to the federal stimulus funds, that education would be fully funded.
But the fact of the matter is that it has not been fully funded during this term.
Every year since the 2007 session, education funding has been less than the previous year.
If Barbour gets his way with the $65 million, it most likely will be less again for the upcoming budget year.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.