BILLY MCCOY: Funding cuts threaten education, mental health, other areas

By Billy McCoy

With only a few days left in the 2011 regular legislative session, the Legislature and governor are at odds over the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. I refer to the Legislature because the House and the Senate were largely in agreement on the budget until Gov. Barbour put his presidential campaign on hold to join the discussions a few days ago.
There are three main sticking points.
First is education. The House and Senate have approved identical appropriations for elementary and secondary education. And both houses approved the same funding bill for community colleges.
For whatever reason, the governor wants to cut K-12 education by $30 million, including the entire $6 million the Legislature provides to teachers each year to cover the cost of school supplies. His plan is below the amounts that the House and Senate have passed this session. Both votes were strongly bipartisan.
Education has sustained more than $300 million in cuts over the last several years, laying off several thousand people and driving up the teacher-student ratio in classrooms all over Mississippi. There is no need for the governor’s proposed cuts, and in all likelihood, if we were to do this, many school districts would raise local property taxes to cover the cuts. We in the House are opposed to passing higher local property taxes in the name of cutting state government.
Second is mental health. The governor wants to cut the Department of Mental Health by $17 million, thus shutting down virtually every community mental health center around the state. These local offices treat and care for patients who need help but have nowhere else to go. Before these centers were created, many of these patients ended up in local jails. There is just no reason to make this cut when there are funds available to pay for these local centers, especially since they use these state funds as a match for more Medicaid funds.
And finally, the governor wants to cut $5.4 million from our university agriculture education and research institutions. His reasoning is unclear. Perhaps it is in retaliation for the Mississippi Farm Bureau’s opposition to his position on eminent domain. In any case, this proposed cut is arbitrary and destructive to jobs in agriculture in Mississippi.
We in the House have provided a proposal to the Senate to properly fund education, mental health and university priorities while leaving more than a $200 million balance in the rainy day and reserve funds in addition to the $47 million balance in the Hurricane Disaster Funds. The governor has said we should leave the next administration with $200 million in reserves. We agree with him, and our proposal does just that.
The House and the Senate have stood together this session on education funding, and we in the House have no intention of backing off that commitment to the children of Mississippi. Likewise, we in the House have no intention of turning our backs on Mississippians who need assistance from our local community health centers or harming our valuable agricultural industry.

Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, is speaker of the Mississippi House. Contact him at the Capitol, (601) 359-3300. You also can write to him at P.O. Box 1018, Jackson, MS 39215.