BOBBY HARRISON: Earlier MAEP funding promises haven’t been kept

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

JACKSON

In 2006, a number of Republican legislators crammed into then-Gov. Haley Barbour’s state Capitol office for the signing of a bill to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The only Democrat in the group was then-House Committee Chair Cecil Brown of Jackson.

Brown waited with the group for the governor for a brief while, looking uncomfortable, then announced he had another meeting and excused himself. All of the Republicans in the room begged him to stay, but he said he couldn’t.

Brown, who works out daily, was at the time walking with the use of a cane, pending a back surgery that he would have at the end of the session. Knowing Brown’s discomfort, he cast a sad shadow as he limped from the office.

While Brown might have had another meeting, he was seen not too long after departing the governor’s office sitting by himself outside the House chamber.

The back story is that at the time many of Brown’s Democratic colleagues in the Legislature were extremely upset with him for agreeing to a deal with the governor and the then-Republican minority in the House to phase in full funding of the Adequate Education Program over a three-year period.

Democrats wanted to continue to fight for more immediate full funding of the program that provides the state’s share of most of the basics of operating local school districts. Brown reasoned that Barbour had blocked full funding to that point, maintaining that the state could not afford it. He reasoned that it would be a victory to get the governor committed – through the force of law – to eventual full funding of the local school districts.

Brown maintained a phase-in was both practicable and doable.

But there was a clause in the phase-in bill added by then-Rep. Jamie Franks, D-Mooreville, via a floor amendment that said full funding would occur earlier than three years if state revenue collections allowed it.

The amendment was kind of open-ended and could be interpreted many different ways. But as it turned out, state revenue collections were soaring thanks in large part to rebuilding after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Soon, Democrats, including Brown, were arguing that there were funds to immediately fully fund the schools.

Barbour resisted until many legislative Republicans joined the chorus for full funding.

Finally late in 2006, Barbour relented to full funding for the 2007 session, which was an election year.

The Legislature and governor fully funded the program in 2007 – only the second time since it was fully enacted in 2002.

Later that year, everyone from Barbour, who was running for a second term, to fellow Republican Phil Bryant, who was running for lieutenant governor, to nearly every legislative candidate ran on full funding of education. Barbour made a commitment that full funding never again would be an issue.

In 2007 when campaigning for lieutenant governor, Bryant was quoted in The Meridian Star saying, “Now, when Gov. Haley Barbour said it (education) was the No. 1 priority at the state of the state address and said we are going to fully fund education now and into the future, all of a sudden Republicans are saying, ‘Me too.’ Well there wasn’t a lot of ‘me too’ there for a while when those of us Republicans were supporting public education.”

Since then when both Barbour and Bryant spoke of full funding “now and into the future,” state funding for MAEP has been a cumulative $1.5 billion short of full funding.

The program is much further from full funding now than in 2006 when Brown made the deal with Barbour.

Yet, the budgets proposed by both Bryant, now the governor, and the Republican legislative leadership, which includes Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, are about $285 million short of full funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

Granted, it would be difficult to catch up to full funding in one year even though state revenue collections are relatively strong.

In 2006, Brown and Barbour cut a deal to catch up over a period of years. No one is even talking seriously about such a proposal now.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol bureau chief. Contact him at (601)353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.