OUR OPINION: Barbour again proposes hot issues in final budget

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Haley Barbour, never one to govern with a whimper, presented his version of the 2012 executive budget on Wednesday, and it calls for controversial – in many cases needed – change in some sacred-cow practices and institutions.
Barbour earlier in his administration proposed school district consolidation, a topic that stays hot with all the constituencies involved. Barbour appointed a special commission to make recommendations, but its findings didn’t change anything.
However, Barbour has some strong support for at least the general idea of district consolidation on the Mississippi Board of Education.
Claude Hartley, a longtime trustee who will retire early in 2012, has repeatedly said the Legislature should give consolidation authority to the state board of trustees.
Hartley has also said an ideal number of public school districts would match the number of community and junior college districts: 15.
Barbour and Hartley are political opposites in many ways, but they operate well in the realm of pragmatic outcomes. Pragmatism would be required to make major changes like regional governance, but even smaller-scale consolidations of county and municipal districts where appropriate could significantly reduce some administrative costs.
Barbour also recommends some university mergers and the abolition of state support for intercollegiate athletics at the universities and community colleges – and a reduction in support for interscholastic athletics at high schools, a $37 million expense.
The major “football universities,” with the largest overall athletic budgets and private-sector support, could survive and thrive, but the regional universities with varsity-level teams would argue in favor of the state support. High schools probably would raise Cain, and it’s probable the tax burden simply would shift to local school districts. That could be described as a tax increase forced but not supported by Gov. Barbour.
Barbour, not surprisingly, would reduce the total support for public education by 1.4 percent, 2.6 percent for universities and 2.5 percent for community colleges.
He would offset state reductions by spending reserve funds accumulated by the colleges and school districts. He has made that proposal previously, and he has met justified resistance from people who paid local taxes to help create the reserves, often with specific long-term goals in mind.
University merger is another red flag Barbour proposes in his final budget. The idea should be given serious consideration. Every university becomes its own political support system; it is a demonstrably inefficient rule by which to fund higher education.
Barbour has had enormous influence because of his political skill getting initiatives through an historically belligerent Legislature that often has been like putty in his hands. It’s his nature to continue to push to the end for the few major proposals he’s advanced that haven’t been enacted.