House committee OKs budget

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislation passed the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that will provide essentially level funding for K-12 education.
The House leadership is using $126 million in funds made accessible because of revenue growth and $48 million taken from special fund agencies to provide more funding for education and other agencies than had earlier appeared possible.
While K-12 education essentially maintains its current funding, it is still more than $220 million below full funding under the Adequate Education Program.
Special fund agencies generally are those that are funded through specific fees or assessments. For instance, the state Nursing Board is funded through a fee levied on nurses to be licensed.
General fund agencies include most of the larger state entities, such as education and Medicaid. They are funded through general taxes, such as on sales and income taxes.
Many Democrats, and some Republicans, expressed concern with the Republican leadership for “raiding” many special funds to garner the additional money. In debate on the House floor, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, asked was it fair that fees nurses thought they were paying to run their oversight agency be used for the general fund.
“We don’t want to rob anybody, but realize too these (special funds) are state funds just like general funds are state funds,” said Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc, who handles many of the budgets for the special fund agencies.
Last week, House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, amended another bill to make those special funds available for the House to spend. Many members complained Frierson did not adequately explain to the House the content of the amendment taking money from the special fund agencies.
Frierson told the House Wednesday he hopes to find ways not to use all of those special funds, but said they were needed currently to ensure the House passed a balanced budget.
Frierson said money taken from the special funds was cash balances and would not affect their operation. Many special fund agency directors, though, have said those funds were dedicated to vital services.
Leslie Lee, director of the Office of State Public Defender, said the nearly $3 million taken from her agency was being held in reserves because she often has to contract with private attorneys to help with the caseload. For instance, she said, if multiple capital crimes are com-mitted, she does not have the staff to provide all the assistance a county might need in defending the case.
Lee said she would understand if 10 percent was taken from each special fund agency “to donate to the general fund,” but said it was unfair to make it difficult for her small agency to perform the mission for which it was created.
The House took up and passed about 20 special fund agency budget bills Wednesday. It is expected to take up education and other general fund agency budgets today.
The House leadership is proposing a general fund budget of $5.56 billion – almost $50 million more than was expended during the 2011 session.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com