By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Legislature passed the bulk of the $5.5 billion general fund budget Wednesday and left local school districts $232 million short of full funding.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, tried to convince members of the Senate to send the bill back to budget leaders with the instructions to provide additional money for the local schools, but his motion was rejected 28-19.
“I believe passing this budget is the most consequential mistake we have made since I have been down here,” said Bryan, a veteran lawmaker. “We are imposing pain and unnecessary cuts on people when we don’t have to.”
All of the senators supporting additional education funding, via the program directing money into local schools, were Democrats.
Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, argued against Bryan’s motion and said because of the dramatic drop in state tax collections, additional money was not available.
“I want to spend more money on K-12 education,” Nunnelee said. “However, we are restrained by the realities” of the revenue situation.
Bryan said that was not true. He said the state has $500 million or more in reserves.
Bryan added he could not understand why the Legislature is not appropriating all of the additional federal stimulus funds the state is expected to get from Congress. The budget bills passed Wednesday appropriate $110 million of the federal stimulus funds that Congress is expected to approve this summer. Bryan noted it does not appropriate at least $60 million of the funds.
The legislative leadership and Gov. Haley Barbour opted to save those funds for the 2011 session when they say the budget picture probably will be even worse.
“We are going to do terrible things to public education now just because there is a potential we might have to do terrible things in the future,” Bryan said.
Anticipating additional budget woes, many local school districts already have announced intentions to lay off teachers, impose furloughs and reduce staff.
In the House, which traditionally has been the chamber that slowed the budget process by demanding additional funds for public education, there was no opposition to the final decision.
Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the Senate leadership and Gov. Haley Barbour would not agree to additional education funding.
“The bottom line is we think we have done the best we can do,” Brown said.
Based on information handed out by Nunnelee and House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, education funding is essentially the same for the upcoming year as it is now after cuts of more than $200 million by Barbour. If for some reason the additional federal stimulus funds are not approved, education will absorb additional cuts of $80.8 million.
Most other major agencies, with the exception of Corrections and Medicaid, will absorb even deeper cuts. The cuts are on top of cuts Barbour already has made of 9 percent or more for most agencies.
The Department of Mental Health will be cut $12.2 million, or 4.65 percent, from the level it is receiving now, which represents already imposed cuts of 9 percent. The eight public universities are getting $7.3 million less than they are getting now. The 15 community colleges are being cut 7.4 percent of $17.8 million from their current budgeted amount.
Nunnelee said the governor has promised to restore some of the cuts to community colleges through federal stimulus funds that are at his discretion.
A few additional budget bills will be taken up today.
Legislators hope to end the 2010 session this week.