Legislature fills budget holes

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A compromise bill that spends $82 million in reserves to offset budget cuts quickly passed the House and Senate on Wednesday with only three dissenting votes in the two chambers.
“We’re not totally satisfied with it,” said House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. “It is the best we can do.”
Three members of the 122-member House voted no while no senator opposed the measure.
Gov. Haley Barbour, who has cut $458.5 million from the budget this fiscal year, indicated through a spokesman he will support the measure. The governor vetoed an earlier effort to restore $79 million, saying it spent too much of the state’s $500 million in reserves while not spending enough on prisons.
Both the vetoed proposal and the plan passed Wednesday restores almost the same amount of money – $37 million – from the $205.7 million cut from K-12 schools.
“Whatever we can get will help,” said Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver, who like most education administrators has been struggling with budget cuts.
The bill will restore $450,390 of the $2.5 million cut from the Tupelo schools and $513,130 of the $2.6 million slashed from the Lee County School District.
Brown said the measure passed Wednesday would help, but predicted some school districts still would face serious financial hardships.
Barbour has made the cuts because tax collections have been below the amounts projected to fund the budget passed last year by the Legislature and signed into law by him.
The compromise was reached after the House agreed to the position of the Senate leadership and Barbour to restore $16 million of the $29 million cut from prisons. The Senate leadership agreed with the House position to restore $4 million of the $20 million cut from the Department of Mental Health.
Another key factor in reaching a compromise – at the insistence of the House leaders – was an agreement from Barbour to provide to the community colleges $4.4 million of his discretionary federal stimulus funds.
The vetoed bill also provided funds for student financial aid; the bill passed Wednesday did not.
Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, said it was too late in the academic year for additional financial aid to make a difference. He said he anticipated budget cuts of 8 percent this year, so he reduced financial aid by that amount before the school year began.
In doing so, some of the state’s scholarship programs were not awarded. He said he hopes additional funds for financial aid are available for the upcoming school year.
With the passage of the $82 million compromise, legislators now must focus on developing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. That task is expected to be difficult as state revenue collections continue to be depressed.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.