EDITORIAL: Level funding?

By NEMS Daily Journal

Like every other state, Mississippi is still in budget tightening mode. Unlike the federal government, the state is constitutionally required to balance its budget, so hard decisions can’t be postponed.
Revenues are beginning to pick up slightly, but not enough this year to ease the budget pressure as the Legislature develops a spending blueprint for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The disappearance of federal stimulus funds that shored up budgets in the current fiscal year makes the task of crafting the upcoming budget that much harder.
Public education can’t expect not to be affected by tough times. It’s just not in the cards for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to be fully funded in this legislative session according to the formula in state law; funding is already more than $240 million short of that as it is.
But the Legislative Budget Committee at least recommended last fall that MAEP be funded in FY 2012 at the same level as in FY 2011, which ends June 30. That was a good faith effort to keep public education from losing even more ground.
“Level funding,” however, means different things to different people. To Gov. Haley Barbour and Senate Appropriations Committee chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, it means that $65 million in federal funds allocated for the current school year and not yet spent should be counted, freeing up $65 million in state funds for use elsewhere.
The problem with this is that many districts have committed to use the money, or may use it, before the end of the current school year.
The $65 million was part of a $98 million appropriation that Congress authorized last summer to be sent directly to local school districts, with the stated intent of rehiring laid off teachers and otherwise plugging budget shortfalls. Because of the recession-induced revenue downturn, the state Department of Education estimated before the beginning of this school year that some 700 teaching positions had been eliminated in Mississippi.
The bottom line is that using the already allocated $65 million in federal funds to replace state funds is not level funding because the money had been counted as part of schools’ budgets for the 2010-11 school year. House Appropriations chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, suggested that school districts that had already committed the funds might have to raise local taxes if the federal money is assigned to replace state funds in next year’s budget, and he estimates that only $40 to $50 million instead of $65 million is available anyway.
Public schools will be far from full funding next year as it is, but they shouldn’t bear the additional burden of having money already committed to them taken away.