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State budget issues tough, but resolved

Jackson — When the wrangling was over in the second special legislative session of 2005, lawmakers approved a $4.6-billion state budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

“I’ve been here since 1979, and got on the appropriations committee during my fourth year, but I’ve never seen a budget receive more scrutiny than this one,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi). “Overall, I feel reasonably good with the effort that has been made.”

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said that while the agreed upon budget differed in many ways from what he proposed, “it is a budget I can sign.”

Not too bad

Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) spokesperson Scott Hamilton said the Legislature allotted the state’s economic development agency $17.5 million, 5% less than last year’s budget of $18.6 million. The Legislature once again earmarked $5 million for special Budget Contingency Funds. Expenses for the employment training division were diverted when it was moved from MDA to employment services.

“The budget cut is what we anticipated,” said Hamilton. “We feel like we’ll be able to maintain our level of service with that 5% reduction. We’ll do the bulk of it through attrition and productivity gains. We won’t renew a couple of personnel contracts and we’ll consider some other belt-tightening measures. It would always be better to have more resources than less, but we’ll work through it.”

During the regular session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2480, retroactive to January 1, which redirects $20 million to fund additional workforce training programs at the state’s community colleges. The windfall has given the new State Workforce Investment Board several choices to make concerning the allotment of funds.

“The $20-million deal was great,” said Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. “On top of that, this year we’ll be up to $21 million in project money. We’ve increased the salaries on some of our advanced tech projects. We’re also providing some administrative costs back to the colleges, which they’ve never had. Now we’ve got to decide how much to spend the excess on.”

Among the items discussed: financing advanced technology centers, similar to those in Alabama and North Carolina for high-end workforce training programs, and additional funding for nurse training to help alleviate the nursing shortage.

“The list goes on and on,” said Stonecypher. “We anticipate spending $15 or $16 million in actual project money, which would leave us $5 to $6 million for long-term needs. We’ll have no problem assisting new or existing businesses with workforce training programs. We’d like to promote that aspect more, and we may hold tight to see what kind of demand we can create. We’ll all come to a consensus together.”

Back on track

Even though there was no replenishment of the highway funds from the state, as had been tossed around when lawmakers were deciding what to do with the $100-million WorldCom settlement, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), a stand-alone agency that does not receive its funding from the general fund, did have its budget approved intact. Language was amended to correct the diversion of the Gasoline Fuel Tax Sinking Fund, and there was legislative confirmation that the state will honor its obligation of the Gaming Road Bond Fund for the term of the bond, which is 17 years.

“The Legislature has fully funded our budget request and seems to have moved away from diversion of funds, and in doing so has allowed MDOT to adequately plan and develop a much needed transportation program with the confidence being shown,” said MDOT director Butch Brown. “MDOT can recover, in the short run, from the delays and postponements of many needed projects.”

What about the future?

Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said the Legislature endured a tough budget situation with reasonable compromises.

“But it cannot become the new baseline to measure our progress against,” he warned. “We’ve got to constantly look to the future, continue to invest in marketing economic development and tourism and, of course, education. We can’t keep shorting it. It’s a huge mistake.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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