BOBBY HARRISON: Education didn’t get full funding in ’09 budget year

JACKSON – In late February, Gov. Haley Barbour said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program “will be 100 percent funded this year and next. There is plenty of money for that.”
As late as May 6, in his revised budget proposal announced with great fanfare to a standing-room only crowd in the biggest committee room at the state Capitol, Barbour placed $52 million in federal stimulus funds in his budget plan for the current year to replace education cuts he had made because of a slowdown in state tax collections.
He made a point of going into great detail to explain he would be restoring funds cut from education. He announced it in his narrative that explained his budget plan.
In those two instances and in many more, Barbour told local school officials they would get money from the federal stimulus funds approved earlier in the year.
In the Mississippi Legislature, Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, asked that since Barbour had committed to restoring the education funding, couldn’t the Legislature take the money out of its rainy day fund to give to the schools and use the stimulus funds to replenish the rainy day fund?
Tollison was told that under federal stimulus rules that was prohibited, but not to worry, the school districts would get their money.
Tollison probably did worry. And with reason, as it turned out.
Less than a month after that highly publicized May 6 meeting, Barbour changed his mind. The governor reasoned that the fiscal year was up and the school districts had made it without the funding being restored, so why do it now? The new fiscal year begins July 1.
In his latest budget proposal, the governor is using the money he promised to the school districts for the current fiscal year to fully fund education in the next fiscal year.
At first, House budget leaders objected. But as it turns out, they say, the federal stimulus package gives the states’ governors a good bit of discretion in how the funds are spent.
In other words, there is not too much the legislative budget leaders can do about the governor’s decision – thank you very much.
The money being used for the upcoming budget year rather than the current budget year makes it much easier for House and Senate leaders to finally agree on a compromise.
Using those funds is one of the primary reasons progress had been made toward an agreement in recent days after going weeks without any real breakthrough in budget negotiations.
Perhaps Barbour has a point in not restoring the funds this late in the fiscal year. That seems logical.
But many education officials point out that they will be paying bills for the current fiscal year for several weeks after the year ends.
Some, probably taking Barbour at his word that the funding would be restored, might not have trimmed their budgets as much as they normally would have.
They might be put in a financial bind because of the governor’s change of mind, but perhaps not one that they cannot overcome.
Maybe in these tough budget times the school districts should be happy with what they get. That is essentially what the governor said recently.
But put a picture of every politician involved in the state budgeting process on the wall and throw a dart, and it will hit one who campaigned on fully funding public education regardless of the situation – Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, House Speaker Billy McCoy, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer or many others.
When the governor cut education this past fall early in the budget year because of a slowdown in tax collections, he did not get much criticism, though he did have other options.
But most of the criticism was tempered because of the almost unprecedented economic conditions. Many said the Legislature would restore the cuts once the session started in January.
The House did pass legislation to do just that. But that legislation quietly died after the federal stimulus package passed and Barbour said he had the money to offset the cuts.
But he never used it for the current budget year.
As a result, the politicians who ran for office promising to fully fund education did not keep that commitment, even though federal stimulus funds gave them that option, and even in these tough economic times.

Contact Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or at bharrison@djournal.com.

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