Panel: Don't cut school funds

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Funding for both K-12 education and community colleges would hold steady in a budget recommendation from legislative leaders, but they still would get nearly $390 million less than they’ve requested.
Overall, the two education entities came out much better than many other state agencies in the Legislative Budget Committee’s proposal released Tuesday.
Support for the eight public universities, for instance, is cut $12.2 million, or 3.3 percent.
Most other agencies also are cut under the panel’s proposal. Overall, the recommendation calls for a cut of $127.4 million, or 2.31 percent, in total dollars going to state general fund agencies. It would eliminate 4,105 jobs.
The cuts are caused primarily by the loss of one-time funds, including $526 million in federal funds, that were used by the 2011 Legislature to fund recurring expenses. The proposal still uses more than $500 million in one-time money to fund recurring expenses in the coming fiscal year.
The 14-member Budget Committee is tasked with developing a blueprint to be used by the Legislature during the upcoming session, which starts Jan. 3. Outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour will release his budget proposal later this month.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who will succeed Barbour, also will release a budget proposal. In his current position, he is a member of the Budget Committee but did not attend Tuesday’s meeting where the proposal was approved by the members with no dissenting votes.
Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said the Budget Committee proposal “provides a conversation starter to the FY 2013 state budget that begins July 1, 2012.”
Earlier this year Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham told the Budget Committee that local school districts need an additional $300 million – primarily to fully fund the Adequate Education Program, which is the source of state money for local school districts. Eric Clark, executive director of the Community College Board, requested another $88.4 million to meet what he called growing needs at the 15 two-year schools.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called the proposal “an austere budget and these are austere times … We have to govern a little bit with our hearts. When we cut back, we are putting an axe deep into the heart of some of our citizens.”
Holland said he is concerned about some of the cuts in health care-related agencies. Medicaid was cut nearly 7 percent, or $53 million, in the proposal.
Holland and other House members on the panel conceded they most likely will be replaced in January by Republicans, who captured a majority in the chamber in the November elections.
While Republicans maintained their majority in the Senate, members of the Budget Committee from that chamber also most likely will change. Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, for instance, was defeated in his re-election bid.
Davis said the proposed cuts, on top of reductions made by the Legislature in recent years because of a historic drop in revenue collections, have resulted in agencies having been cut “down to the bone … or we are hitting the marrow in some of them.” The cuts in the Budget Committee proposal vary and include 46 percent for Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and 19.3 percent for the Highway Patrol.
While the new House and Senate leaders will have their own ideas, Davis said the proposal approved Tuesday will serve “as a baseline.”
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com