House passes ed budget short of full funding

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The Mississippi House, which in recent years has made full funding of public education a priority, passed an education budget Tuesday that is about $120 million shy of full funding.

Tuesday began the process in which both chambers take up bills to fund the $13 billion state budget. The process is scheduled to be completed in late March or early April.

Education at full funding levels accounts for more than $2 billion of the total state budget. House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the House leadership still supports full funding and hopes to achieve that goal before the session ends.

But the House chose not to make a statement on full funding for education early because of the uncertainty in the budget process.

Revenue estimate

That uncertainty could prove to be a positive for the state's budget situation. Later in the session, the legislative leadership hopes to raise the revenue estimate, which would mean more money to appropriate for education and other priorities.

In recent months, thanks in part to the rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, revenue collections have come in much higher than expected, making it likely that the revenue estimate will be raised.

“What we did today was pass a skeleton budget,” said Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville. “What we are going to do later in the process is put as much money as possible toward public education.

“We are going to get as close as possible to full funding and hope we can provide full funding. Our priorities will be education and funding the increases in the health insurance premiums for state employees and teachers.”

In past years, the House has tried to pass full funding early in the session, saying it should be a priority and that it shouldn't have to to compete with other programs for money late in the session. The Senate and Gov. Haley Barbour have said in past years the state could not afford full funding. Last year the fight over education funding stopped the budgeting process, and legislators had to adopt a budget in special session.

For the past two years, legislators have not fully funded education.

Other budget issues

Even with revenue coming in at a much improved rate this year, it still could be difficult to provide full funding for education. All agree there are other needs, such as providing enhanced funding for higher education, which has been cut in recent years, and a pay raise for state employees, who have had only one increase since 2000.

The House has passed language to provide an across-the-board raise of $1,000 for two consecutive years. Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, a key member of the Appropriations Committee, said the Senate would propose raises of 5 percent for university and community college faculty and a minimum raise of $1,200 for other state employees.

The state College Board is asking for 5 percent pay raises for faculty for three consecutive years. Tom Meredith, commissioner of higher education, said the multi-year raise is needed to make up for past years when faculty did not receive any increase.

As a result of those years with no increase, he has said, universities have lost faculty and are having a difficult time replacing them.

“We are getting a lot of positive feedback that everyone is going to be attentive to higher education needs this year,” Meredith said Tuesday. “The revenue is still looking good. We are optimistic.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bharri9015@aol.com

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