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Mississippi legislators begin session, expect school debate

Mississippi legislators started their 2017 session Tuesday, and their main focus during the next three months could be trying to adopt a new school funding formula.

The current formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, was put into law 20 years ago but has been fully funded only twice. Legislators hired a New Jersey-based consulting group, EdBuild, to recommend changes.

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia says she doesn’t anticipate recommending a reduction in spending. But any changes would cause losses for some school districts and gains for others, unless lawmakers find money to increase total spending.

Legislators this session could also consider ways to put millions more dollars into highways and bridges amid pressure from business groups that say unsafe infrastructure is an economic drag.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, gave a speech just after the House gaveled into session at noon Tuesday, noting that 2017 is Mississippi’s bicentennial year.

“Like our forefathers, we too have the privilege of shaping the future,” Gunn said. “Just like our forefathers, that task can appear daunting and we can grow apprehensive. But just like our forefathers, it is a great time of excitement and expectation.”

House Minority Leader David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said he’s hoping for a reduction in partisan acrimony that dominated the 2016 session.

“We’re going to try to find common ground where we can,” Baria said.

Although the opening day is usually devoid of work, Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory tried within the first few minutes to get the entire Senate to vote on changing part of a budget bill that was passed in the final days of the 2016 session. He wanted to remove a provision that banned any public money from being spent on the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents — a group that had criticized lawmakers for short-funding the public schools.

Bryan said the provision was put into the final version of a bill late during the 2016 session and was not fully debated.

Senators rejected Bryan’s attempt to get a vote Tuesday. Instead, his proposal will be sent to the Appropriations Committee for discussion later in the session.

Baria said Democrats are willing to discuss changes to the state’s education funding formula if they will result in improvements. However, he said Republicans should expect “some pushback” on their proposal to remove civil service protections from most state employees.

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, said she opposes changes to the school formula. “We have never given it the chance to work by fully funding it,” she said.

Baria said Democrats are willing to work with Gunn to push a solution for infrastructure spending.

“He’s going to have to have help because he can’t get the votes in his own caucus,” Baria said.

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