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Higher education, tourism officials ask for more state funding

Money_rgbJACKSON — The two systems that run Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges each want lawmakers to increase their budgets by more than $75 million, arguing more state spending on higher education will help residents earn higher incomes and bolster the future of the state.

State agencies are presenting requests to the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee this week, setting the stage for negotiations that won’t intensify until the 2015 Legislature begins. The lawmakers will write a budget for the fiscal year that begins next July.

Looming over both presentations, though, were legal efforts to force the Legislature to meet its funding promises to K-12 education. Yesterday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked officials from both higher education systems how they would cope if lawmakers took $312 million from their budgets to fully fund the K-12 formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Both said cuts to shift money to MAEP would be catastrophic.

“Obviously that would have a devastating effect,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board.

“I can’t even answer that,” said Higher Education Chancellor Hank Bounds. “Tuition won’t do it. Nothing would do it.”

The eight public universities, which received a $750 million appropriation this year asked for an additional $76.5 million. Of that amount, $7.6 million is needed to cover shortfalls next year in financial aid programs lawmakers have mandated, Bounds said. Another $17 million would go to the University of Mississippi Medical Center

Bounds argues Mississippi must keep investing in higher education if it wants to stop falling behind in the share of its residents who are college educated. College Board projections show Mississippi would have to almost quadruple the number of degrees awarded if it wanted to equal the national average of people with bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

“We’re 20 years behind in educational attainment,” Bounds said. “We are making progress, but we’re losing ground because others are moving ahead faster than we are.”

The state’s 15 community colleges asked for a total increase of $79.1 million over this year’s appropriation of $251.7 million. Clark said the money would allow the independently governed colleges to expand workforce training and improve faculty salaries.

In 2007, the Legislature passed legislation requiring that it fund the colleges at a point halfway between K-12 and universities, on a per student basis. To do so, lawmakers would have to raise per-student funding from $3,432 per year to $5,562, costing $140 million. Clark asked for half that amount in the 2016 budget.

“Midlevel funding has exactly the same legal status as MAEP,” Clark said. “We’re asking you to move the needle on that and to do it this year.”

Another $9 million would be specifically earmarked for a dropout recovery initiative, to help high school dropouts earn a high school equivalency diploma and then learn job skills.

“There are tens of thousands of disenfranchised citizens of Mississippi that can become part of the solution where the workforce development is concerned if we can only deliver some contemporary job skills to them,” said Scott Elliott, president of Meridian Community College.

Also, Mississippi tourism officials are requesting more public money to promote the state in big media markets such as Atlanta and Chicago, hoping the investment will lure travelers to play golf, visit civil-rights landmarks or hear authentic blues music close to its roots.

State tourism director Malcolm White told legislative budget writers yesterday that Mississippi spends much less than any other Southeastern state on advertising its own attractions.

“We feel like Mississippi has an amazing and great story to tell. And, simply put, we are getting lost in the crowd,” White said.

Mississippi spent $3 million on tourism promotion during the 2014 budget year, which ended June 30. That compares to Florida’s spending of $58 million, Alabama’s $22 million and Louisiana’s $11 million.

Mississippi Development Authority is requesting an additional $5.1 million of taxpayer money for tourism advertising and marketing during the 2016 budget year, which begins next July 1.

That amount would allow the state to advertise in Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis and parts of Texas and Florida, White said. The state tourism office currently is spending $359,000 for TV advertising in Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Birmingham, Alabama.

“We don’t currently advertise in Texas or Atlanta because we simply cannot afford to,” White said.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is holding public hearings this week to start planning for fiscal 2016, and MDA is one of several state agencies requesting additional money. The House and Senate will adopt a final spending plan by early April, if they stay on schedule.

The state Supreme Court, public defenders’ office, office of capital post-conviction counsel and Commission on Judicial Performance each requested more money yesterday.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said Supreme Court staff attorneys are paid less than attorneys who work for the Legislature or the attorney general’s office. He is requesting money for raises. About 20 percent of the court’s staff attorneys leave for other jobs each year, Waller said.

The chief justice also requested $90,000 to pay two guards who could work at the main entrance of the decade-old Supreme Court building. The entrance has not been used because of tight budgets, Waller said. Instead, court employees and visitors use a side entrance.

“Mr. Speaker, we want to open our front door,” Waller told House Speaker Philip Gunn, the chairman of the Budget Committee.

Leslie Lee, director of the public defenders’ office, is requesting an additional $42,105, about a 1 percent increase. The office is funded partly by fines people pay for speeding tickets, but Lee said that revenue is lower than expected, possibly because people can’t afford to pay tickets.

Louwlynn Williams, director of the office of capital post-conviction counsel, is requesting an additional $459,204, which would be a 35 percent increase. She said the office is working on 22 death penalty cases with four attorneys, one investigator and three other staff members.

“Our staffing level is well below that that is required by the American Bar Association for the handling of death penalty cases,” Williams said.

Darlene Ballard, director of the Commission on Judicial Performance, said the commission is saving money by meeting every second month rather than every month. She also said the commission has a state vehicle that has been driven more than 180,000 miles and needs repairs. The commission is requesting an additional $81,651, a 15.8 percent increase.

“We’ll certainly consider it,” Gunn told Ballard.



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