CATEGORY: Legislature



By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Drawing money from the Working Cash-Stabilization Fund, which brought a gubernatorial veto earlier this month, is again being considered as a source of funding by the state Legislature.

The House Appropriations Committee, with no dissenting votes, decided Wednesday to take money from the Working Cash-Stabilization Fund to provide enough money to get the state Department of Environmental Quality up to federal standards.

But Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, said he believes the committee would come back today and reverse its action.

“It’s a terrible precedent,” Ford said of taking money from what is commonly called the “rainy day fund.” He said other funds would be tapped to get DEQ’s water-pollution-control program up to federal standards.

Gov. Kirk Fordice already has vetoed one bill this session that would have taken up to $2 million out of the fund to allow the state to take over financially troubled school districts. Fordice has said he liked the concept of the “emergency conservatorship” bill for troubled school systems, but thought the rainy day fund should be used only for budget shortfalls and for natural disasters.

The rainy day fund was set up in 1992 and is currently capped at $201 million, which is 7.5 percent of the state general fund.

The decision to use the rainy day fund came on an amendment by Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg. Flaggs’ amendment came after another amendment by Terry Brown, R-Columbus, was defeated.

Spirited debate

Brown had proposed taking a total of $1 million from eight other agencies to provide DEQ with the money needed to remove the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulators from the state. Brown’s amendment caused spirited debate. Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, argued successfully that education’s percentage of state general fund money already had been reduced from 62 percent to 56 percent in four years.

“The 1-cent sales tax was passed in 1992 to enhance education,” McCoy said. “Ever since then, means like this have been used to chip away at the percentage of money going to education.”

Brown said he did not want to take money from other agencies, but said action must be taken to get the federal regulators out of the state.

This past summer the Environmental Protection Agency started making water inspections in Mississippi in place of the state DEQ because Mississippi had a backlog of permits. The inspections were for municipal and manufacturing water systems.

The EPA action came after DEQ essentially received no additional funds for two years except for pay raises. Studies by the Legislative Budget Committee staff have indicated it would take $2.7 million to get DEQ up to a standard that would meet federal guidelines.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee grappled with where the $2.7 million would come from. They came up with $1.7 million of the money, but because of tight budget restraints could not come up with the rest.

That is the reason Brown suggested taking the money from public education, the institutions of higher learning, corrections, mental health, agriculture, community colleges, economic development and wildlife fisheries and parks. Public education (kindergarten through grade 12) would be the biggest loser with $369,247 coming from its budget.

“I don’t like doing this,” Brown said. “But the Legislature has acted very irresponsible toward this (DEQ) budget during the past three years. I kept saying one day would be a day of reckoning. It is here.”

Economic development issue

Brown also had the support of many manufacturers, who have been vocal in their support of restoring proper funding to DEQ. They have contended the federal regulators are less willing to work with manufacturers and municipalities to correct problems. They also say the federal regulators have no interest in working on new manufacturing projects. Brown presented the proposal as an economic development issue.

While saying they understood the dire situation with DEQ, several legislators opposed taking money from other agencies.

McCoy said it also is an economic development issue to have quality teachers and a good school system.

Because of tight budget restraints, McCoy said several education programs would be cut this year. He said education would receive $59 million less this year than it did last year.

The $59 million cut will come because during the past few years the state had huge surpluses at the end of the budget year. Under state law, half of the surplus goes to education. This year, the huge surplus will not be there because the revenue estimate is much closer to accurate, McCoy said.

McCoy also said he would work with Brown and others to find the funding for DEQ.

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