House OKs, Obama signs aid bill

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A federal bill designed to bolster cash-strapped school districts across the nation passed the U.S. House on Tuesday and was immediately signed into law by President Obama.
But the exact impact of the legislation on Mississippi is a point of contention.
Two provisions of the bill, which passed 247-161, have the potential of providing $180 million to Mississippi school districts. The Legislature underfunded K-12 education in the state by more than $230 million for the current school year because of historically low tax collections.
The first provision reduces the money the state is required to put up to get federal Medicaid funds and the second involves a direct appropriation for saving teacher positions. It’s the latter provision that was blasted by Gov. Haley Barbour because he said it would require the state spend $50-$75 million to get $98 million in education funds to “meet the desires of the far left.”
State budget analysts and others were still trying to determine late Tuesday just what the legislation would mean to Mississippi. But the state is expected to get about $150 million through the Medicaid matching reduction, and that would free up funds for other areas, such as education.
The 2010 Legislature anticipated that enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds were coming and committed $110 million of it to the budget for the current fiscal year, with $82 million of that total going to local school districts. Higher education, public safety, public health and other areas of state government also will benefit – to a lesser extent – from the enhanced Medicaid match.
Any amount above $110 million was to be saved for the 2011 Legislature to appropriate for the upcoming fiscal year.
House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Tuesday it is possible the state legislation might need “to be tweaked” to draw down the enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds. But since Barbour and a vast majority of state legislators supported expending the enhanced Medicaid matching funds, Brown said he hoped the “tweaking” would not be an issue of contention.
The state Department of Education estimated the enhanced Medicaid matching funds would mean an additional $4.95 million for Northeast Mississippi school districts.
In the other major provision of the legislation, the state’s 152 school districts could get an additional $98 million to save an estimated 2,000 education jobs, according to 1st District U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, who voted for the legislation.
“Education is the pathway to jobs, and I’m a strong believer that it’s the only way north Mississippi is going to lift itself up. I wouldn’t be where I am without a solid education,” Childers said in a news release. “Today’s legislation will support teaching jobs throughout the state, helping prevent unemployment and ensure that our children receive the education they need to secure good-paying jobs and contribute to a skilled workforce in the 1st District.”
But Barbour, a Republican, ripped the teacher jobs portion of the legislation saying it would force Mississippi to rewrite its budget and put another $50 million to $75 million into education to draw down the funds.
“This is Congress far exceeding the authority of the federal government by forcing states to change already-adopted budgets to meet the desires of the far left,” the governor said in a news release.
To get the money, Barbour said the state will “have to take money from law enforcement, human services, health, mental health, economic development and job creation.”
Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour, said he did not know whether the governor would take the money.
Brown said various experts are looking at the legislation to try to determine if the state will have to put up additional dollars to draw down the federal education funds.
“I think we will have to get clarification on the rules before we know,” he said. He added the state also might have options on how the money is spent and perhaps it could be spent over a two-year period.
“If we do have to come up with an additional $50 million to get the funds, that is what we need to do,” Brown said.
Democrats supported the bill, which had been fought over for weeks, as critical to maintaining vital public services at a time when the nation’s faltering recovery has left state and local governments in dire financial straits. Republicans denounced it as another federal bailout the country cannot afford and accused Democrats of catering to teachers unions and other special interests.
The bill is fully paid for, mainly by ending some tax breaks for companies operating overseas, as well as by imposing an earlier end to a food stamp program.

Daily Journal wire services contributed to this report. Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.