Budget cuts show in reduced services

JACKSON – For legislators looking for the impact of state budget cuts, they can turn to Mississippi’s public school classrooms, which this year have 705 fewer teachers than they did last year.
That information was presented last week to House and Senate leaders on the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee, which heard concrete examples of how budget cuts enacted during the 2009-10 sessions are affecting education, health care and law enforcement.
According to state Superintendent Tom Burnham, who appeared before the committee, the teacher reduction comes from several sources: the loss of teaching positions from last year to the current school year, the elimination of 792 teacher assistant slots, a reduction of 164 fewer administrators and the decrease of 402 non-certified personnel – janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and the like.
Plus, about 60 school districts have either had furloughs or reduced the local salary supplement for teachers, or done both.
And as if to add insult to injury, in addition to the elimination of school personnel, 89 school districts have raised local property taxes by $15.1 million because the Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour reduced the amount of money that traditionally goes back to the local districts to hold down property taxes.
“We are at a point in history where cuts are affecting the quality of life and services in this state – whether education, mental health or public safety,” said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, a member of the Committee.
Over four days last week, the Budget Committee, including House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, heard budget requests from agency heads in advance of developing a budget recommendation for the 2011 Legislature to consider.
The requests total $1.3 billion more than was appropriated last year to the agencies.
“While there are some very compelling cases,” Bryant said, “the fiscal reality is state government cannot operate as it has in the past.”
In other words, more cuts are likely.
Many state agencies, including public education, the universities and Medicaid, want legislators to replace federal stimulus funds that will run out when the current fiscal year ends June 30.

Stimulus plugged holes
The cuts, due to the historic drop in state tax collections, would have been even more severe if not for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds that have plugged budget holes.
The state is receiving about $1 billion in federal stimulus funds over a two-year period. It appears the state will save about $130 million in stimulus from the current year to spend next year.
But the saved stimulus funds and gradually improving tax collections probably will not be enough to prevent additional cuts from being enacted by the 2011 Legislature.
Anticipating those cuts, Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds said the eight public universities have developed three-year business plans that will result in a reduction systemwide of 1,100 faculty and staff.
“Every university in the state has cut staff,” he said. “It has resulted in larger class sizes.”
The 15 community colleges have tried not to cut faculty because of a double-digit enrollment increase last year and a 7.2 percent increase for the current year. Despite the enrollment spikes, the funding level for the current year is below the level for the 2008-09 school year.
“We’ve done it without cutting services and laying off employees because we are by design productive, lean institutions that offer access and affordability,” said Hinds Community College President Clyde Muse. “We shouldn’t be penalized for our success.”
Most of the community colleges, like all of the universities, have raised tuition. But to offset the loss of $44.6 million in federal stimulus funds, university tuition would have to increase more than 12 percent, Bounds said.
“Obviously we have great concern about taking the full hit in lost stimulus funds,” Bounds said. “It would be difficult to absorb.”
Education is not alone in dealing with budget woes.
Ed LeGrand, executive director of the Department of Mental Health, has put in place a plan for “a worst-case scenario” that involves the possible closing of mental health hospitals, including North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo.
If additional funding is not found, said Don Thompson, executive director of Human Services, the state is in danger of falling out of compliance with a federal court settlement of a lawsuit over the state care of foster children.
Steve Simpson, commissioner of Public Safety, said the impact of the budget cuts on his agency cannot be quantified until a later date when such things as statistics on traffic wrecks and fatalities are gathered.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, an education advocacy group, said the same is true for education.
“If these circumstances are not reversed,” she wrote, “student achievement is bound to suffer, and the positive momentum teachers and students have worked so hard to achieve will be reversed.”

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

BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

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