Budget negotiators in the Mississippi Legislature reached agreement over the weekend on the basic framework for state spending in the fiscal year that begins July 1. As of Sunday afternoon, however, there were still details to be worked out.
Whenever House and Senate leaders get together to iron out their differences, there’s always the chance of getting hung up on one or more issues that prevent an agreement from being reached. In a previous term, for example, inability to agree on a Medicaid budget forced lawmakers to come back later – at additional expense to the taxpayers – to finalize spending on the health care program. So it’s a good thing that nothing similar hung up the negotiations this time.
But there were issues where there was disagreement between the two chambers.
The Senate, for example, voted to give $60 million above the current fiscal year’s funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, while the House kept funding level. The negotiated agreement, unfortunately, leans to the House position, adding only $10 million to MAEP at a time when according to law it should be getting about $265 million more. We had hoped the conference committee would make faster progress toward closing the gap between actual MAEP appropriations and what the law requires. Failure to follow the law has resulted in $1.2 billion in underfunding of K-12 education since the last time MAEP was fully funded in FY 2008.
But the good news on the K-12 education front is that the budget agreement calls for $1,500 raises for teachers in the first year of what’s anticipated to be a multi-year pay hike. Additionally, community colleges and universities are apparently going to get modestly increased funding levels as a result of the addition last week of nearly $250 million in projected revenue for the budget. But they, too, have a long way to go to catch up after years of cuts during the prolonged economic downturn.
One piece of good news in the budget for Northeast Mississippi was a three-year commitment to issue $20 million in bonds for an upgrade of the Cooper Tire plant in Tupelo. Coupled with $18 million in local tax incentives, that should help secure a $140 million investment by the company to make Tupelo its most technologically advanced facility, ensuring a workforce of at least 1,300 for the next decade.
Lawmakers have a tough job allocating limited resources, so reaching agreement is never easy. We wish they could have found more money to begin closing the education funding gap, but the positive elements of this budget – particularly the teacher pay raise and a $1,000 raise for lower-paid state employees – shouldn’t be ignored.