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Session ends; issues remain

Education proved to be one of the top priorities for lobbyists, legislators — and the business community — during the 2008 session that ended April 19.

Some of the components of the Quality Education Act survived and became law after the regular session. Some did not.

Among those left standing are:

• House Bill 513, which would fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MEAP), the formula used to determine the funding for each of the state’s school districts. Gov. Haley Barbour’s signed the bill April 23. Barbour said in his State of the State address in January that fully funding MAEP was a priority for him. This will mark the first time in the formula’s history that it will be fully funded for consecutive years. HB 513 also restored some of the diverted Teacher Supply Fund, to the tune of $7 million, $800,000 more than last year. State law requires the fund have at least $20 million in it.

• Senate Bill 2149, which calls for the removal of elected or appointed superintendents who have one or more underperforming schools in their district. Schools must underperform, based on state criteria, for two consecutive years. Appointed superintendents would be removed by the state Board of Education. Elected superintendents would be prevented from seeking office again.

• SB 2176, which expands salary increments for veteran teachers, or those with 25 through 35 years of experience.

Other components of the QEA that either earned passage or are awaiting Barbour’s approval are a $3-million appropriation to improve private pre-kindergarten programs. The QEA had called for a $20-million appropriation. The high school redesign program, which aims to ensure high schools teach skills that are relevant to the modern workplace, was signed into law. Like the pre-K programs, the redesign funding fell short of the requested amount.

No appropriations were made for the Public School Building Fund or the fund for a 3% increase to base teacher salaries. Nor was the requirement for a 60% supermajority lifted for passage of school bonds. The QEA wanted that threshold to be lowered to 55%.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign, which advocates for better public schools, said there were more ups than downs this session.

“While we didn’t get everything we wanted for public education, we were able to make some significant progress for Mississippi school children.” Loome said. “I’d say that, considering the tight budget year, Mississippi children came out pretty well.

Powering up

A measure that supporters say will go along way toward improving utility service for Mississippians is SB 2793. The bill would allow public utility companies to charge the costs of construction to ratepayers as new facilities are being built. It has cleared both chambers and is waiting for Barbour to sign it.

Entergy pushed hard for the bill, saying it would save ratepayers money in the long run. The company has plans to construct additions to its Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Port Gibson. Entergy Mississippi communications manager Checky Herrington said he expects the bill to gain Barbour’s approval.

“We have no indication that he’s not going to,” Herrington said. “There were concerns about it during the session. But I think we addressed those. We added some consumer protection clauses. This will address some serious energy issues in the state.”

E-Verify update

No longer in suspense is the bill that would require Mississippi businesses to use a government Web site, called e-Verify, to ensure their workers were legally eligible to work. SB 2988, which Barbour signed in March, would require large companies to be in compliance by the end of this year, and smaller companies to be in line in the next few years.

Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, had expressed concern about the accuracy of e-Verify as the bill was making its way through the legislature.

“There is now an interpretation of the bill that would not make companies sign on until 2009,” Moon said. “So that may create some time to sort out some of the problems e-Verify has had. Overall, though, there weren’t a lot of bills that went through that would raise the cost of doing business. That’s always a good thing.”

Though the session ended, lawmakers will have to return to Jackson before the beginning of the fiscal year to address a $90 million shortfall in Medicaid.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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