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Community colleges always the first to get hit, says senator

Lawmakers mull proposed budget cuts

Editor’s note: This is the third and final story in a series examining proposed cuts to Mississippi community college workforce training programs and the subsequent impact on the state’s economy.

Mississippi lawmakers say they empathize with business and education leaders about the plight of workforce training funds and are searching for ways to minimize the impact of proposed community college cuts.

“The community colleges did take an awful hit, but whenever you have these draconian cuts, the only places that can take deep cuts are the community colleges and the IHL,” said Sen. Jack Gordon (D-Okolona), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and member of the Legislative Budget Committee. “Community colleges are always the first to get hit because they can generate their own funds.”

According to the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, the 20% cut — or $39.8 million — proposed by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for FY2002 would include $8.4 million in administrative costs, and $31.4 million in community and junior college support. Of that amount, nearly $24.2 million would come from the general fund.

“Everybody’s concerned about the impact of cuts on education in general, and on community colleges in particular, because they’ve taken a larger hit than K-12 or higher ed,” said Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson), member of the House Appropriations Committee. “People are scrambling and digging as hard as they can, trying to shift money around, but we don’t know where we’ll take it from to give to the community colleges.”

Last year, lawmakers threatened to cut community college funds by $17.7 million, representing a 45% reduction in funding for workforce education centers. The end result was $6.5 million in losses, part of which was set aside for workforce training, said Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

According to studies featured in the trade journal The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mississippi has been pushed down from No. 8 in the nation for funding higher education in FY1999 to No. 47 in FY2000. Two years ago, fueled in part by a strong economy, community college budgets increased 16%. But a change of direction has observers saying this latest round of proposed budget cuts will probably land the state at the bottom.

“In Mississippi, the recent economic boon and the good times for public colleges already seem to have come to a screeching halt,’’ the publication said.

Rep. Charlie Capps of Cleveland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and member of the Legislative Budget Committee, said the situation might get worse. The most immediate concern is that all FY2001 budgets may come up at least $200 million short, perhaps as much as $250 million, he said.

In the last 17 months, individual, corporate and use taxes have been sluggish, Gordon said.

“This is the first year we’ve been off on gaming tax — we are $10 million short — and $36 million short on sales tax, which we have not been short on before,” he said. “And we still continue the pattern of being $38 million short on individual income tax, $25 million short on corporate income tax and $5 million short on use tax. Combined with sales and gaming tax short, it’s a sure indicator that we’re having a real slowdown in the economy.”

Sen. Neely Carlton (D-Greenville), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said community colleges, whose funding is derived from general funds and bond money, compete with “a long list of bills in finance of people seeking funds.”

“With the tight budget, we knew it would be tough,” she said. “What you often hear on the floor is someone very passionately speaking about something they think ought to be done that will cost money, and a majority of legislators probably feel should be done, but the response that you would get from members of the Appropriation Committee is, ‘Here is the pie. If we cut this piece of the pie for you, who do you want me to deny their piece?’ There is never a response to that question.”

When lawmakers approved a $295-million bill in a special session last November that helped Mississippi land a $930-million Nissan plant in Madison County, $80 million was earmarked for job training. That amount will not be affected by the proposed budget cuts.

“Because of that, the opportunity for more bond indebtedness is limited for other projects,” Carlton said.

Community colleges took another hit with the sagging Education Enhancement Fund, financed by a one-cent tax increase passed in 1992 to avoid serious education cuts. While some EEF programs are protected against cuts, such as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and a program to fund school districts borrowing to pay for buildings and buses, with respective price tags of $9.4 million and $16 million, the state’s 15 community and junior colleges are taking a $1.6-million hit, on top of a $7.4-million cut from the ending cash balance shortage.

One scenario that has been bandied about involves selling a $93.9-million lump sum — instead of keeping the $120-million, 12-year settlement terms — from a lawsuit against American Management Systems, a Virginia-based company that was unsuccessful in developing sufficient tax-collection software for the state.

“Governor Musgrove probably couldn’t get but maybe $75 million for it,” Gordon said. “There’s no support in the Legislature for it.”

Attorney General Mike Moore said the settlement is “already done, signed and finished.”

Rep. Bobby Moody (D-Louisville), member of the Appropriations Committee and Legislative Budget Committee, also said he didn’t see legislative support for selling an annuity for a lump sum.

“I’m not in favor of using one time money to shore up the budget,” he said.

In preparation for tighter budgets, community colleges are bracing for proposed cuts by discussing possible strategies to offset the cuts. They include a tuition hike, a hiring freeze, layoffs, increased county support and a reduction in educational equipment, supplies, material and travel.

“A month before the session, I talked to some of the community college officials who were very upset about the level of cuts at the community college level,” said Carlton. “For those of us who live in the Delta, there are a large number of families who send their children to community college first, then senior colleges. That may be true throughout the state, but particularly in the Delta we rely heavily on community colleges. When they receive cuts, it trickles down to the family level.”

Sen. Terry Burton (D-Newton), member of the Senate Appropriations

Committee, said there is a move to continue 13% to 15% cuts across the board.

“I don’t totally agree with the particular procedure that we cut every agency an equal amount because some agencies are able to take cuts better than others,” he said. “I think we should look at each agency and make necessary cuts from each agency proportionately rather than across the board.”

“The difficulty is that we have 174 members of the Legislature, each with his own priorities,” Burton said. “We particularly run into that with education issues. In general education, K-12, for example, you might have 25 special projects ongoing that are funded with state funds. I can see funding maybe 24 of the 25, but someone else would fight like crazy to keep the other one. That’s part of the process — give and take. I suspect there won’t be across-the-board cuts in the end. There’ll be winners and losers on various issues. But the proposed community college cuts represents a real bad situation. There’s no
ques
tion about it. If there’s money out there to find, I don’t know where it is. People are very upset. But there’s no sentiment whatsoever for a tax increase.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at l

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