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Epic budget battle on horizon

The biggest disagreement the Mississippi Legislature encounters in its regular session is usually the state’s budget — specifically, which departments will see an increase in its allocation and which will see its funds slashed.

The wrangling began September 15 and continued into last week when the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held its initial round of hearings.

The consensus: Many state agencies are asking for more money then they received last year. For example, the Department of Corrections is seeking an increase of almost $22 million. The state Department of Education says it needs $183 million more than last year, to fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula that determines funding for each of the state’s individual school districts, and to deliver on a 3% teacher pay raise that cleared the Legislature last session.

And then there’s Medicaid, whose official numbers have yet to be filed but will include $90 million in state obligations. An accounting error that resulted in a refund to the state from the federal government paid the tab for this fiscal year. The discovery came after months of gridlock between the Democratic-controlled House, which favored a cigarette tax to fund the program, and the Republican-controlled Senate, which passed a bill that would increased the provider assessments hospitals, physicians, pharmacies and nursing homes pay. Similar battle lines will likely be drawn when the full Legislature convenes in January.

Combine that with a faltering economy and revenues that are not increasing rapidly enough, and there is a good chance the bickering of last session will be repeated this winter and next spring.

“It’s almost like you have the perfect political storm,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “Mississippi is in its most partisan condition probably ever, and the budget is going to be extremely tight. The opportunities to exercise partisan conflict are going to be numerous.”

Disagreement over education funding is something the Parents’ Campaign, a group that advocates for better public schools in Mississippi, is seeking to eliminate. That group will have four major target areas come January: Fully funding MAEP, making the 3% teacher raise a reality, increased funding for early childhood education and accountability within districts.

“(Gov. Haley Barbour, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leadership) have committed to fully fund MAEP, and we’re confident they’re going to follow through with that,” said Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome.

Prior to last session, MAEP had only been recently funded in 2003 and 2007, which were election years. This past session marked the first time the program had been fully funded two consecutive years.

Just as critical as fully funding MAEP, Loome said early childhood education lays a foundation that will prevent a child to contributing to the state’s high school dropout rate. “We understand that we have limited resources. We’ve always had limited resources, especially this year. But legislators have to look at this as an investment.”

Mississippi has struggled for years with a teacher shortage, particularly in poorer districts. Teachers have fled for richer districts in state and out-of-state, leaving a void that can kill a school’s purpose of educating and turn it into nothing more than a babysitting service.

“Research has shown that (having an appropriate number of teachers in the classroom) is critical to development,” Loome said. “And we will not properly address that problem until we pay them. That’s why we are for the 3% pay raise.

“And once teachers and administrators are there, accountability is essential. Good teachers and administrators are not afraid of that.”

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

About Clay Chandler

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