By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The state Senate, acting against the wishes of its leadership, voted Tuesday to place an additional $29 million in kindergarten through 12th grade education for the upcoming fiscal year.
The extra money was placed in education by amending on the Senate floor the budget bill passed by the Appropriations Committee.
“I think we need to set a priority here,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, whose amendment passed 31-19 with nine of the chamber’s 25 Republicans voting with the Democrats for the proposal.
The proposal increased funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program by $27 million to $2.12 billion, to match the amount passed earlier this session by the House. MAEP provides most of the basics of operating local school districts.
The Senate also voted to increase funding to provide the salary supplement for National Board Certified teachers by $2 million to $25 million as the House had passed earlier.
Bryan pointed out that the additional funding would help local school districts. But the amount passed Tuesday is still $169 million below full funding for Adequate Education.
The vote was important because budget negotiators generally try to represent the position passed by their chamber. In past years, Senate leaders have been able to advocate less funding for K-12 education than the House negotiators proposed because the full Senate had passed a smaller amount.
But based on Tuesday’s vote, that will not be the case this year.
Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, was the only Northeast Mississippi senator to oppose the Bryan amendment.
“I am not opposed to getting funds to the schools, but I am opposed to an unbalanced budget, putting roughly $30 million more into K-12,” Nunnelee said.
He challenged supporters of the Bryan amendment to make cuts in other areas to ensure a balanced budget. Efforts were made by various senators to do that, but those proposals were defeated.
Bryan said the $30 million could be found by negotiators in a $5.6 billion budget, and added that other proposals, such as tax credits, were passed that would throw the Senate budget out of balance.
Bryan conceded that ultimately House and Senate negotiators would have to agree on a balanced budget, but said it was important for the Senate to send a message to its budget negotiators that the chamber as a whole wanted as much money as possible in K-12 education.
Legislators are dealing with difficult budget issues because of a historic slowdown in state tax collections. School districts across the state have announced their intentions to lay off staff, including teachers, during the upcoming academic year. Some schools may not have enough funds to finish the current school year without additional help from the state.
The Bryan amendment also would commit an additional $50 million to K-12 education if Congress – as expected – approves an additional $190 million in Medicaid funds for the state.
If that happens, Bryan said, money would be freed for education.
The Senate passed another amendment that would cut in half the amount of state funds that could be spent on administrative costs. Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who offered the amendment, said it would free $20 million to be spent in the classroom.
Nunnelee did not oppose the amendment but said it would have a minimal impact because the school districts would not be prohibited from using local funds to supplant the state funds that would be redirected from administration to the classroom.
State law allows school districts to spend 4 percent of their total state and local funds on administration. The Watson amendment would not change that, but would limit the amount of state funds that could be spent on administration.