By Sen. Hob Bryan
You have homework.
A large, bipartisan, majority of both houses of the legislature want to avoid needlessly deep cuts to education in the next school year. It appears that Gov. Haley Barbour supports these deeper cuts. The outcome may well be determined by public opinion. That’s you.
Times are tough. Budgets will be cut – and severely. The question is: by how much? With well over $600 million in reserve funds in the bank, and more on the way from Congress, we need to use some of that cash now to ease cuts education as we pull through this recession. Since most legislators support doing just that, you may fairly ask, “What’s the problem?”
Well, read on.
As it became apparent earlier this year just how deeply schools were being cut, most Democrats in the Legislature began voting to restore some funds. We weren’t successful at first, but as more and more Republicans joined the effort we gained ground. Eventually, over the objections of the governor, we passed a bill with overwhelming bipartisan support to ease this year’s cuts to education and other vital services. The governor vetoed that bill, and he sustained his veto, but that battle led to passage of another bill which restored most of the money. This would never have been possible without the support of Republican legislators who were more dedicated to education than to the governor.
Then, the focus turned to the House and Senate plans for next year’s budget. The Senate leadership’s plan proposed to cut $30 million from the House proposal for public schools, and it failed to fully fund salaries for nationally-certified teachers. In a most unusual move, the Senate rejected its leadership’s plan. A bipartisan coalition of 31 senators – including nine Republicans – voted against the leadership and for the House plan.
We felt that if the House could fund schools at the higher level, fund salaries for nationally certified teachers, and balance the overall state budget, so could we.
Also, by the time of the vote, word came from Washington that Congress would likely send more than $150 million in new funds to the state.
So, we voted to use $50 million of those funds for public schools. That’s a total of $80 million at stake.
The problem is that the governor doesn’t support this $80 million effort – at least not yet. I have agreed with Gov. Barbour on some critical issues, and I have taken heat from Democratic colleagues for doing so. But even ardent admirers of the governor are often flummoxed by his repeated willingness to put education funding on the chopping block.
There’s certainly nothing wrong in calling for fiscal restraint in dire times. But this is beyond that. It means, for example, $1 million for the Tupelo school district, $300,000 for Amory and $600,000 for Itawamba County.
Fast forward to April 20 when the Legislature returns to Jackson. Even though not overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate have supported restoring this $80 million, and an overall budget compromise will be fashioned by a tiny handful of legislators. The governor, who is a very effective lobbyist, will have a great deal of influence over the Senate budget negotiators.
This is where you come in. Even if you usually support the governor, it’s time for you to make clear to your legislators that you don’t support him on this one. If there’s enough public support for the $80 million for public schools and for helping community colleges and universities (funded by just a small part of cash reserves just sitting in the bank today and/or flowing from Washington), there’s a good chance it will pass. Without a public outcry, the Senate budget writers are likely to listen to the governor.
You, the people, can out-lobby the governor.
So, here’s your homework: Thank the Democrats in the legislature who have led the fight for public education. Thank the Republicans who have joined the battle, particularly those nine senators who stood up for education on that critical 31-19 vote. Encourage the Senate leadership and the senators who will be on the conference committee to support the plan that passed the Senate.
The Legislature reconvenes on April 20, but discussions about the budget are already underway. Folks need to hear from you right away. Don’t wait until the last minute to do your homework. Get to work. Now.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, represents District 7 (Lee, Monroe and Itawamba counties), and is chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee. He is a 26-year member of the Legislature. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him at Box 75, Amory, MS 38821.