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Budget writer: Cuts possible if education measure passes

JACKSON — A top Mississippi budget writer is telling leaders of most state agencies to plan how they would cut spending in case voters approve a school funding initiative in November.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, met with agency directors Tuesday at the Capitol and told them to prepare plans for 7.8 percent spending cuts. He’s requesting answers by July 15.

Frierson said he thinks at least $200 million would have to be moved from other programs into education if voters in November approve either of the two school funding proposals that will be on the ballot.

The citizen-sponsored Initiative 42 would require lawmakers to fulfill a school funding formula that has been ignored most years since it was put into law in 1997. The proposed constitutional amendment says the state must fund “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

Legislators put Initiative 42-A on the ballot as an alternative — and critics said it’s simply a way to confuse voters because it’s similarly worded. It would require funding of “effective” public schools.

Frierson said Tuesday that he opposes both initiatives, and he believes either would require budget cuts in other state programs.

Patsy Brumfield is spokeswoman for 42 For Better Schools, a group pushing the citizen-led initiative. She said Frierson is using scare tactics because the proposal would not require immediate full funding of schools. She said additional money could be phased in over a few years, as the economy expands and tax collections increase.

Sondra Odom of Pearl, vice president of the Mississippi Association of School Boards, also criticized the budget chairman’s actions.

“Mr. Frierson’s threats are no different than a father falsely telling his child: ‘I’ll buy you all the books you can read, but if I do, you will have no clothes to wear and no bike to ride,'” Odom said in a news release.

Frierson said a few programs are exempt from his budget-cutting memo, including the Division of Medicaid, which would lose a significant amount of federal money if state dollars were reduced.

“If really wanted to make this a scare tactic, I would have included Medicaid” in the cuts, Frierson said.

Frierson is unopposed for re-election this year. Although there’s no guarantee that he will be Appropriations Committee chairman again during the four-year term that starts in January, it is unusual for a House speaker to remove someone from that job. Frierson said he’s trying to consider how the state might spend money.

“It’s good fundamentals to plan,” he said. “If we had reliable information there was going to be a recession in July of ’17, we would plan for it right now.”

As for initiative supporters’ contention that full funding of schools could be phased in, Frierson said: “If that passes, I don’t know how you don’t full fund it and full fund it immediately.”

Frierson’s memo to agency directors asks them to look for cuts during the current budget year, which ends June 30. However, he said in an interview that if cuts are needed, they’re likely to happen during the budget year that begins next July 1.

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