Governors’ budgets usually don’t mean much in this state, and although Haley Barbour has wielded virtually unprecedented power with the Mississippi Legislature during his tenure, forcing adherence to his pre-legislative session budgets hasn’t been how he’s done it.
Still, the budget proposal Barbour released Monday for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is important because it suggests the governor’s priorities and where he might use his persuasiveness in the budget discussion. It’s as significant in signaling what Barbour won’t do as it is in outlining what he wants done.
The governor, no doubt to the surprise of some, advocated level spending for K-12 education in a budget that seeks to cut other state agencies by an average of 8 percent. Public education advocates had been bracing for calls by Barbour to cut school budgets by an additional 10 to 15 percent, based on requests he made to all state agency heads for expense-saving suggestions.
What this signals is that those who intend to fight further cuts to K-12 education for FY 2012 won’t have to take on the governor. That’s good news for Mississippi schools, who’ve already absorbed double-digit percentage cuts the last two years while under increasing pressure to raise student achievement.
Granted, Barbour’s proposal doesn’t provide money for automatic raises due teachers for an additional year’s experience. And it uses $65 million of $98 million in federal stimulus funds allocated this year to schools, effectively holding that money over to the new fiscal year. But it could have been much worse.
Universities and community colleges, hit even harder by cuts in recent years, don’t fare as well under the governor’s budget with both taking cuts of around 3 percent. At some point – the sooner the better – legislators must confront the reality of what continued reductions in higher education funding are doing to quality, affordability and accessibility.
Another signal from Barbour that may have surprised some was his willingness to use $257 million from the state’s reserve funds this year to partially offset the $383 million in federal stimulus that will go away after this fiscal year. That would leave $185 million in those funds for use beyond FY 2012.
Barbour’s budget recommendation included a continued call to find more efficient ways to consolidate administrative functions and end duplication in state services. This kind of rethinking of structural impediments to efficiency is as essential in government as it’s been in private business during this recession.
The governor has made the first detailed and specific move. Now it’s up to legislative leaders to present their own alternatives that meet the challenges of the times – within existing political realities.
NEMS Daily Journal