House, Senate budget vote today

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Funds are set aside for pre-kindergarten, the third-grade reading gate and law enforcement officers in the schools in the budget agreement that House and Senate leaders reached Saturday.
Unless there is some unforeseen issues, the House and Senate will vote on the roughly $5.6 billion state general fund budget this afternoon.
The budget agreement, which funds the fiscal year starting July 1, will mark the first time that state funds will be spent on pre-kindergarten. Mississippi currently is one of only four states not to have a pre-kindergarten program.
The money for pre-kindergarten, law enforcement officers in schools and the third-grade reading gate program, which will require students to read on grade level to advance past the third grade, is contingent on other legislation passing during the upcoming week to enact those programs into law.
The session is scheduled to end next week, though it could conclude earlier.
The budget includes an additional $50 million to pay for the increased costs to the state’s retirement system. About $27 million of those costs go to pay the increased pension costs for teachers and other local school district employees.
In addition to the increased retirement costs, kindergarten through 12th grade education will receive about $23 million more than it did during the 2012 session to pay for the new programs and a handful of other programs, such as a merit teacher pay pilot program and scholarships to attract the best students to the teaching profession.
“Last year I think we realized at the end we had a couple (of state agencies) that didn’t quite get where they needed to go because we just ran out of money,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale. “This year we did a much better job moving everybody forward.”
A big help is that recently the legislative leaders raised the revenue estimate by $97 million for the upcoming fiscal year, because of improved state revenue collections.
“That money went fast,” Clarke said. “It didn’t stay on the table long… It filled a hundred different needs.”
In other budgets:
• Higher education received an additional $14 million over last year, plus retirement costs.
• The community college garnered an additional $500,000, plus retirement costs. But the community colleges also will receive an additional $8 million for workforce training through legislation that passed earlier in the session.
• Mental health is receiving an additional $15 million, plus retirement costs, with $10 million set aside for community mental health efforts to try to settle a potential lawsuit.
• Corrections is receiving an additional $46 million with half of that directed toward a deficit for the current fiscal year.
House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the budget carries almost as much money forward for reserves – about $235 million – as it spends in one-time money on recurring expenses – about $250 million.
Frierson has stated as a goal to reduce the Legislature’s reliance on various pots of one-time money.
“We did the best we could considering the lack of revenue we had to deal with,” he said.
Budget leaders said more precise budget numbers will be available today before members vote on the agreement.

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