Gov. proposes mergers, closures

JACKSON – Universities would be merged, school districts consolidated and mental health centers closed if the 2010 Legislature accepts the budget proposal released Monday by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Barbour said his far-reaching proposal is a way to deal with the current economic downturn that has resulted in state tax collections slumping to historically low levels.
“I think this is the best way to get to where we have to go,” Barbour said during a news conference from his Sillers Building office. “Sometimes you have to look your friends in the eyes and tell them something they don’t want to hear.
“I don’t know anything to do, but step up to the plate and tell them what has to be done.”
Barbour’s budget recommendation touches every aspect of state government.
It proposes merging Mississippi University for Women in Columbus with nearby Mississippi State in Starkville and it proposes merging the three historically black universities – Jackson State, Mississippi Valley and Alcorn State – into one school under the Jackson State umbrella.
Under the plan, which the governor said would save about $35 million, no campus would be closed.
MSU President Mark Keenum issued a statement acknowledging the recommendations but not responding to the merger idea. MUW President Claudia Limbert, however, said the governor gave no details or evidence that combining the schools would save money.
“A merger would have a negative impact on the community, region as well as state,” she said.
Barbour also proposes merging the state’s 152 school districts into 100 to be determined by the state Board of Education. He also would close several of the state Department of Mental Health facilities, including North Mississippi State Hospital in Tupelo and a crisis center in Corinth.
Barbour said months of work went into the proposal, but “there is no pride of authorship. … If legislators have different ideas, something they want us to consider, we are open to that.”
Barbour said the state will have roughly $715 million less to appropriate during the 2010 session than it did in 2009 because of a slowdown in tax collections and because federal stimulus funds used to prop up the budget will be running out.
“Dire times call for dire actions,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.
“But I don’t believe our people can stand this much and furthermore I do not believe it can be passed in either chamber.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he agrees with Barbour about the severity of the budget woes.
“I am not ready to accept any individual recommendation of the governor,” Nunnelee said. “What I think the governor has done is give us a baseline for discussion.”
The budget proposal has other sensitive aspects, such as giving more authority over the state’s 15 community colleges to the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges.
Currently, the bulk of the governance of the schools rests with local boards.
Many of the governor’s more controversial proposals, though, will not result in much if any savings for the upcoming budget year, he said.
The savings will occur in two years and thereafter. But Barbour pointed out that with the complete elimination of federal stimulus funds in two years, budgeting will be even more difficult for the 2011 Legislature.
For the 2010 legislative year he is proposing on the average an 11.5 percent reduction in spending compared to what was appropriated during the 2009 session.
Barbour said his budget proposal does not mandate “a reduction in payroll, but we anticipate a good bit of that.”
Education entities would be cut between 9 percent and 12 percent under the Barbour plan. Barbour is asking local school districts to contribute about $180 million in “rainy day funds” to offset state cuts.
Tom Burnham, who will take over as state superintendent in January, said he believes the savings from school consolidation will be minimal. The governor has estimated $65 million in savings from consolidation.
Still, Burnham said, “Suffice to say the state board will study what the governor has proposed and have a position statement at some point.”
Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, agreed. But he added that university merger will not be easy because the three historically black universities were the subject of a federal lawsuit that forced the state to provide them additional funds to improve facilities and class offerings.
He believes there would be attempts to go to court to block any mergers of the three schools.
Bounds said the eight university presidents are currently working to develop budget proposals to absorb cuts “and maintain quality in academic offerings.”

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

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal