OUR OPINION: 2014 budget contains some good, some bad

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Legislature continues working through a backlog of legislative conference reports – budget bills and statutes – as the crush of deadline week intensifies in the Capitol.
Late Sunday afternoon, both chambers had given final approval to K-12 public school funding, a major item every year generating intense work by proponents of additional investment and equal effort by those who have other priorities for the people’s money.
As has become the usual story, there’s good news and bad news in the education funding bills.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is funded at the same level as 2013 (the current budget year), but the total for 2014 is almost $300 million less than full funding as driven by the MAEP formula.
However, progress is counted in funding provided for the first time for a state pre-kindergarten program and funds for a third-grade “reading gate” program, designed to ensure that children read at grade level by the end of third grade or face retention.
As the Daily Journal reported Sunday, the total state budget for 2014 is set at approximately $5.6 billion, a sum described as conservative by the Legislature’s Republican leadership.
The fiscal year starts July 1, and the new budget includes $6 million specifically to begin state-funded pre-kindergarten – 4-year-old education. It is a goal long sought by many parents, educators and progressive business leaders who recognize its positive impact on young minds eager to learn and retain knowledge for the long term. Mississippi has been one of only four states nationwide without some form of pre-K education, the only state in the Deep South without it.
The third-grade reading gate program, as the Journal earlier reported, is contingent on other legislation passing during the upcoming week to enact those programs into law.
In other budget highlights earlier reported:
• Higher education receives an additional $14 million over last year, plus retirement costs.
• The community colleges get additional $500,000, plus retirement costs. But the community colleges also will receive an additional $8 million for workforce training.
• Mental health is receiving an additional $15 million, plus retirement costs, with $10 million set aside for community mental health efforts to try to settle a potential lawsuit.
• Corrections (prisons) is receiving an additional $46 million with half of that directed toward a deficit for the current fiscal year.
The huge additional outlay for prisons is an indicator of how much ground Mississippi must make up to have any expectation of competing successfully for economic growth and improved quality of life in coming decades.