Education fares better with current law

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – By refusing to give Gov. Haley Barbour more flexibility to make state budget cuts, the Mississippi House saved education entities, from kindergarten through universities, about $32 million.
Based on proposed cuts Barbour presented to House leaders at their request, if he had been granted the flexibility he sought, education would have lost $138 million instead of the $106 million the governor actually cut on Friday.
Barbour had asked lawmakers to let him cut budgets by up to 10 percent for agencies and programs of his choosing. Current law limits cuts to 5 percent until all agencies have been cut that much.
The Senate agreed to Barbour’s request, but the House refused.
Still, with state revenue well below projections, the governor made cuts Friday based on the current law, resulting in additional $106 million taken out of education.
While education came out better under the current law, some other agencies would have fared better if Barbour had been granted the flexibility he wanted.
For instance, the Department of Health is being cut $9 million more under the current law. The attorney general’s office and Department of Corrections also are being hit harder, though Barbour indicated that he might use the federal stimulus funds at his discretion to offset cuts to prisons.
If he had been given flexibility, Barbour said, he would have exempted the $6,000-per-year salary supplement for nationally board certified teachers from the cuts.

Cutting supplement
But now he is cutting the nationally board certified teacher salary supplement fund 8.2 percent, or $1.2 million.
That could result in a pay cut for the teachers who have achieved the national board certification, though school districts might still be obligated to pay them out of local funds, depending on how their contracts are written.
House leaders say they aren’t thrilled that by refusing to accept Barbour’s proposal, they reduced the cuts to education at the expense of other agencies.
“That was never our intention,” said House Education Committee Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. Brown and other House leaders say the cuts could have been eased for all agencies.
The governor is making cuts because state revenue is not coming in at a level to fund the budget. Revenue collections are about 8.1 percent below projections for the first six months of the current fiscal.
The House has proposed using $50 million from a $230 million rainy day fund and $61 million in stimulus funds to deal with the issue. House leaders say that will leave at least $400 million in cash reserves.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, with the governor’s blessing, refused to take up the House proposal.
Instead, Barbour cut most agencies Friday to a level that amounts to 8.2 percent for the fiscal year.
“The House plan, which the Senate refused to even take up, dealt responsibly with our situation without leaving a ‘scorched earth’ calamity,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said. “It reminds me of Sherman’s March to the Sea and we know about how long it took to recover from that.”
But Barbour and Nunnelee maintain that additional money cannot be removed from the rainy day fund right now because it will be needed for upcoming years when, they say, the budget situation will be as dire as it is now, if not worse.
Barbour said $115 million in rainy day funds already has been appropriated for the current fiscal year and said it would be imprudent to draw down any more reserve funds.
“The rainy day fund has to last us three to four years,” Barbour said. “This is not going to be our worst budget year. Next year and the year after we are going to see an enormous loss in federal stimulus funds.”

Reserve funds
Another major area of disagreement is how much must be cut or offset with additional money from reserve funds. Barbour said he believes the shortfall for the fiscal year will be about $435 million. He made cuts of $222 million earlier in the fiscal year in addition to the $216 million in reductions he announced Friday.
House leaders point out that state economist Phil Pepper said recently he believes the shortfall will be about $80 million less than that, meaning the cuts should not be as deep.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, has said that during the coming week, he will try to restore some of the lost money. How far those efforts get in the legislative process will be a major issue for the rest of the 2010 session.

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