House may consider more funds for education this week

news_education_greenBy Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Efforts are expected to be made this week in the state House, perhaps as early as Monday, to increase the amount of funding for local school districts.

The House passed the budget for education last week at essentially level funding, plus an additional $25 million for a teacher pay raise.

But Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, held the bill on a motion to reconsider, meaning that if there are enough votes, it can be amended to increase funding for the local school districts when it is reconsidered.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, has said she is optimistic that there will be enough votes.

Rep.Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said he and many others support more funding for the local school districts than the amount in the House bill advanced by the chamber’s leadership. But Brown admitted under the rules of the House, enacted by the current leadership, it is difficult to amend an appropriations bill.

To do so requires that the money be taken from the budget bill for another agency. House Rules Chair Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said on the floor of the House last week that the rule ensures that the Legislature does not spend more money than is available.

But Brown said the amendment prevents the rank-and-file members from considering other pots of money such as the more than $500 million the state currently has in reserves or the $57 million that the state has collected in revenue above projections for the current fiscal year.

An example of how the rule now must work occurred last week when Brown tried unsuccessfully to divert $500,000 from the budget for the Legislature to a program proposed by the Department of Health to try to curb the state’s infant mortality rate, which is the highest in the nation. Brown said the amount in the Legislature’s budget for travel could be reduced slightly to deal with the problem. He said the Legislature’s budget has grown sharply in recent years.

House Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said on the House floor growth in the budget for the Legislature has risen gradually and that increase started before the current Republican leadership took over.

Budget figures show that in Fiscal Year 2008 before the recession hit, causing an unprecedented drop in revenue and a decrease in funding for nearly all state agencies, the Legislature received $25.5 million for operations and travel. The House is proposing to provide $28.6 million in funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget for education is much larger, exceeding $2 billion. But Loome pointed out that while revenue growth in now exceeding what it was in 2008, the House budget proposal for kindergarten through 12th grade education is still almost $100 million less than what it was in 2008.

The House budget plan calls for many agencies to receive more funds during the upcoming fiscal year than they did in 2008, including the Legislature, higher education and corrections. Education advocates say K-12 should receive more consideration.

House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said it is possible that education funding could be increased in the final budget deal developed at the end of the session in late March or April. But for the meantime, Frierson has thus far convinced the Republican majority not to amend on the House floor the budget proposed by him and his Committee.

Whether he can continue to maintain the leadership’s position will be tested if there is an amendment to increase funding for education this week.

Whatever is approved by the House this week then will be transferred to the Senate.

The minority Senate Democrats maintain there are enough funds to provide teachers and state employees pay raises and to begin a process to phase in full funding of K-12 education over a three-year period.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com