COMING UP WITH STATE BUDGET CAUSING HEADACHES
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Before the 1996 legislative session began, House Speaker Tim Ford of Tupelo said the biggest issue facing state legislators would be the tight budget restraints.
A little more than halfway through the 97-day session, Ford is looking prophetic.
The appropriations process began in earnest last week and already there has been a serious disagreement over where to get an additional $1 million to bring the Department of Environmental Quality up to federal standards.
And lawmakers are predicting more disagreements later in the session over much larger sums.
“We may have to make some choices,” Ford said.
The Legislature, particularly the Senate, has passed bills for some big-money items. But those bills contain language saying they will not go into effect unless funds are appropriated by the Legislature.
The items include about $5.5 million for a Youth Court that would cover most of the state and more than $2 million for 31 additional prosecutors.
One legislator said it might come down to choosing between the Youth Court and the assistant district attorneys.
“The Legislature has said crime is a priority. We will do everything we can,” Ford said. “But I don’t see where the money is coming from.”
Ford said it is possible the House will follow the Senate’s lead and pass bills for the Youth Court and the assistant district attorneys. Then legislators will hope money can be found in the final days of the session as the budget picture becomes more clear.
Absorbing additional requests
More than $20 million in deficit appropriations have been requested by various agencies. These are requests for more funds than were budgeted for the current year.
The biggest deficit request is from the Department of Economic and Community Development, which has committed about $6 million more than was budgeted for industrial training.
Of course, there are numerous little tricks available to absorb part of the additional requests for funds. For instance, delaying the start of the Youth Court for half a year could save millions.
In a general fund budget of $2.7 billion, the Legislature has all sorts of options.
An example of this occurred last week when Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi and chairman of the House Education Committee, revealed a surplus of about $5 million in the current education budget. This surplus occurred because there were fewer teacher units needed than the state budgeted last year.
The Legislature is expected to take about $1.4 million of the surplus to infuse into the nearly bankrupt North Panola School District. As soon as the Legislature and Gov. Kirk Fordice agree on a proposal, the state Board of Education is expected to take over the district and fire the administrators who are responsible for North Panola’s financial condition.
Picture still not rosy
Despite the surplus for the current budget year, McCoy did not paint a rosy picture for education funding during the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Education funding has been helped in recent years by big budget surpluses at the end of the year. Under the law, half of the surplus goes to education and the remainder goes back to the general fund.
While state revenues are still growing, a big surplus is not expected at the end of this year.
“The surplus has been an albatross around our (education’s) neck,” McCoy said. He said he would rather have accurate revenue estimates, and then provide education with its historic 60 percent share of the state general fund.
In recent years, as the surplus money has been available, education’s share of the general fund budget has dropped to 56 percent from a high of more than 63 percent. Even when the surplus has been factored in along with proceeds from a 1-cent sales tax, McCoy said education still has received less than a 60 percent share of the total wealth of the state in recent years.
As a result, some education programs face the danger of not being funded this year.
For instance, McCoy’s Education Committee has cut back funds for the Tech Prep program for the upcoming year.
Tech Prep is an innovative incorporation of academics and vocation in junior high and high school. The Mississippi program has received nationwide praise, lawmakers said.
Because of the tight budget, the Education Committee only provided funds for 10 new sites even though 87 districts have applied for state funds. Those 87 districts have agreed to put up local money to match state funds to prepare a site for Tech Prep.
Thus far, the state has funded 91 sites.
Other programs hurt
Tech Prep will not be the only education program hurt. Because of the tight budget, the House Education Committee has recommended no funding for various programs to combat juvenile crime.
Facing the danger of being eliminated are discipline programs – called Forestry Camp and Wilderness Camp. The two programs for troubled teens had a total price tag of more than $400,000.
But the House did budget $2.2 million for a similar discipline program for troubled teens. This program, located at Camp Shelby south of Hattiesburg, is called National Guard Youth Challenge.
Other programs not funded in the House Education budget are Save Our Students and Family Preservation, which each received $300,000 last year.
Save Our Students provided grants to communities for innovative after-school and summer care for children at-risk. Family Preservation had pilot sites where extra efforts were made to work with troubled families to keep them together instead of sending children to foster homes.
No money has been budgeted for a teacher pay raise for the kindergarten through 12th-grade level.
But the Community and Junior College Board has requested a reshuffling of some of its funds to provide a 2 percent pay raise for its instructors at a cost of $3.5 million.
The community colleges also had requested 103 new teaching positions because of rapid growth in enrollment. The House Education Committee budget provided 18 new slots at a cost of $645,000.
During the upcoming weeks, legislators said a lot of give and take will occur as they grapple with funding state government.
“It is a long way to the end of the process,” McCoy said with a slight grin. “The first bull is out of the chute, but it is a long way until the end of the rodeo.”