School districts still in budget hole

other_state_govSecond of two stories recapping the 2014 Mississippi Legislature.

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Teachers and some state employees got pay raises under the budget passed during the final days of the 2014 legislative session that ended Wednesday night, but some say little was done to dig local school districts out of the financial hole they fell into in 2008.

It was in 2008 that the economy plummeted, forcing then-Gov. Haley Barbour to initiate budget cuts. His first round of cuts focused primarily on kindergarten through 12th grade education.

From that point, education funding steadily declined. In recent years, it has started to improve.

But even with $65 million added to the budget during the just-completed session for a $1,500 across-the-board pay raises for the state’s about 30,000 school teachers, K-12 education still has a long way to go to recover from prior budget cuts.

The $2.4 billion budget (an increase of about $85 million over the previous year) provides $114 million less in direct funds to local school districts through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program than was provided in 2008, according to an analysis by the Parents Campaign, a public education advocacy group.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, questioned whether local school districts would ever get a sizable increase in state funds if they did not during the 2014 legislative session. Revenue has been growing by more than 5 percent for the past three years and legislators received an additional $250 million to appropriate late in the session due to the growth in state tax collections.

“We’re getting to the point where the cuts cannot be explained by benign neglect,” Bryan said on the Senate floor. The budget passed by the Legislature leaves the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, $255 million short of full funding based on the formula in state law. Since 2008, MAEP has been underfunded about $1.5 billion.

During the just-completed session, legislators hinted that if revenue continues to increase there could be an opportunity to begin a phase-in of full funding of the MAEP in the coming years.

“I think there will be an opportunity to get there,” Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said of full funding.

But at the same time, some legislators are saying an income tax cut should be considered during the 2015 session, which will be an election year.

The budget passed during the 2014 session provides $15 million (an additional $5 million) for the literacy program passed last year requiring most students to read on grade level before advancing past the third grade. It level-funds pilot pre-kindergarten programs at $6 million even though funding for early childhood education was supposed to be increased this session.

While some are upset that the budget does not provide additional funding for education, others, especially the Republican leadership, tout the “structural” soundness of the budget.

“We finally did what Mississippi families do every day – we are spending what we are taking in and putting more away in savings,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate.

House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the budget fills the state’s rainy day fund to its statutory limit of $409 million, limits the expenditure of one-time funds on recurring expenses and takes care of the priorities.

The budget sets aside funds to provide pay raises to state employees earning less than $30,000 who have not had a raise in four years. Plus, it gives agency directors the authority to give raises to other employees who have not had one in four years if they can find money in their budget to do it.

The $6 billion general fund budget is about $200 million more than what was appropriated by the 2013 Legislature.

“I have been talking for 11 years about getting to the point of a structurally balanced budget,” Reeves said. “This is the first year in over a decade we can say we have done that.”

The universities are receiving an increase of $32.9 million to $746.9 million (counting funding for the University Medical Center and the various agriculture-related programs at Mississippi State and Alcorn State) while the community colleges are receiving an additional $11.1 million to $258.1 million.

For perhaps the first time in several years, almost no agency received an overall cut of any consequence. Budgets for the Division of Medicaid and Corrections – two of the fastest growing areas of state government – continue to grow.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com