DPS asks lawmakers for more money; education funding in question

JACKSON — The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is seeking 45 percent more money from the state general fund for the coming year, a far-larger increase than any other agency has requested during this week’s state budget hearings.

“That’s just not realistic to me,” Sen. Terry Brown told Public Safety Commissioner Albert Santa Cruz during a contentious hearing yesterday.

“I understand that you’ve got needs,” Brown said. “Everyone that comes before us has got needs.”

State revenue has grown 5 percent for each of the past two years, and leaders expect similar growth in fiscal year 2015, which starts next July 1. Two other agencies have requested increases of more than 20 percent. Several have requested increases of 5 percent or less, and some are asking for decreases in their budgets.

Santa Cruz gave the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee few documents to support his budget presentation, although DPS provided documents later to lawmakers and reporters.

During the hearing, when Brown asked Santa Cruz to justify the big increase, the commissioner looked to other DPS administrators who shuffled through papers. After a long pause, Brown, R-Columbus, cut him off: “I withdraw the question.”

Santa Cruz said DPS wants to train more state troopers. Information provided after the meeting showed DPS is requesting $7.7 million for trooper training, about $4 million more for the state Crime Lab, more than $2 million more for the Bureau of Narcotics and an additional $1.7 million for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy, among other increases.

The total requested increase for DPS is $32 million from the general fund. The agency is getting roughly $71 million in the current budget year and is requesting nearly $103 million for fiscal 2015. The state-funded portion of Mississippi’s overall budget, for everything from prisons to schools to public safety, is expected to be more than $5.8 billion.

In an email to The Associated Press, DPS Deputy Administrator Kenneth E. Magee said 82 of the 509 state troopers are eligible to retire now. “As of Dec. 1 this number increases to 102,” he said.

He also said $2.9 million would go to a three-year modernization of a 20-year-old driver’s license issuance system and database.

Magee said that for fiscal year 2013, which ended this past June 30, DPS received $5.1 million less than it needed to pay for salaries.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves scolded Santa Cruz for authorizing “realignment” of some DPS salaries, an administrative way of moving money within a budget to give employees bigger paychecks. That was not a pay raise, Santa Cruz responded. Reeves said it was a pay raise that legislators didn’t authorize as a specific budget category.

Reeves, a Republican, said DPS hasn’t been spending money where it should — like, for example, buying new cars for troopers who are patrolling the highways in old, high-mileage vehicles. Santa Cruz told the Budget Committee that DPS bought 15 new vehicles for one of its divisions, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.

Reeves replied: “When you make purchases of vehicles and they don’t go to people on the road, I wonder about your priorities.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he couldn’t explain why DPS didn’t provide detailed information to the Budget Committee during the hearing: “It makes it hard for us to go to bat for them when we don’t have that basic information.”

Meanwhile, Mississippi education officials are making their legally mandated push to support the state’s school funding formula, but it’s not clear they’ll be any more successful next fiscal year than in other recent years.

State Department of Education officials made their pitch to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee yesterday.

Lawmakers would have to add $264.5 million to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the budget year beginning July 1 to provide what the formula calls an adequate amount of aid to local school districts. According to preliminary estimates, the gap would be down from $293 million in the current budget.

The total amount demanded by the formula has declined for the first time since it was created, because district budgets were cut, leading them to spend less money during the recession, education officials reiterated.

State school board Chairman Wayne Gann of Corinth thanked lawmakers for the extra money that they spent on improving reading instruction and creating a pilot program of prekindergarten classes for the first time. But he said it’s time for lawmakers to recognize that schools have struggled due to funding cutbacks

“School districts have made it through these past few years with few resources. They’ve gone through hard times. We need to provide adequate funding for textbooks, technology and other instructional materials,” Gann said. “As the economy changes, then the question becomes, do we have the political will to adequately fund education?”

That pitch was echoed by interim state Superintendent Lynn House.

“As revenues are improving, we think it’s time to determine the strategy needed to fully fund MAEP, and we think we can determine through the legislative body those strategies,” she said.

Some outside groups are gearing up for a funding push when lawmakers return in January. A small group of protesters associated with the Children’s Defense Fund and Better Choices for Mississippi carried signs outside the Woolfolk State Office Building, where budget hearings are held Wednesday, calling for more money.

But the money picture was clouded by announcements Tuesday that the state prison, mental health and Medicaid agencies are already projecting a collective $100 million shortfall for the current budget year. If those figures hold true, lawmakers will have to backfill that hole before discussing more money for any other purpose.

Some Republicans also prefer to focus new money on free-standing programs instead of the funding formula. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, raised the case of improved performance in the Hollandale and Benton County school districts.

“It begs the question: leadership or money?” Frierson said. “Because that’s not supposed to happen in Hollandale or Benton county, if you look at the socio-economic status, without full funding of MAEP.”

House and Gann said those districts were led by creative superintendents who have found ways to scrape up more money. They agree that leadership is needed to improving performance. But Gann warned, “You see that some of those best superintendents are struggling now with the resources we have.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves raised an issue that has been bubbling among Republicans in recent months — an increase in the share of money spent on administration by districts studied to calculate MAEP.

“The largest increase is in administration,” Reeves said. “The smallest increase, as the formula suggests, is in instruction. That gives some of us less and less confidence in the formula.”

 

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