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No move on school money, raising questions about what’s next

In a back room, for reasons legislative leaders won’t explain, bills to rewrite Mississippi’s school funding formula died Thursday.

The two leaders say they haven’t given up on what was supposed to be their signature issue for 2017. Both say they’re still talking about recommendations to replace the current formula — the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Both say that if they can reach an agreement, they’ll seek a way to bring a proposal forward this year. One option would be to ask Gov. Phil Bryant to call a special session, possibly even before the end of the regular session in April.

“I said from the beginning: We’re going to do it right and not in a hurry, so we continue to work,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican.

That meant the measures died at a deadline Thursday when the House and Senate each failed to act on its own bill.

But Gunn and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves wouldn’t say what’s stalling the action. They would only tell reporters that their respective chambers hadn’t reached an agreement.

That alone is unusual. The House and Senate often pass drastically different versions of a proposal that have to be reconciled later. But in this case, Reeves said the two chambers are trying to agree on a formula that is “substantially similar, if not identical” before releasing proposals.

Gunn and Reeves got into this pickle when they decided to alter the current formula, which calls for a certain amount of money each year, based on how much average school districts spend. Lawmakers have only met the funding target for the formula twice in 20 years and are $172 million short of the mark this year alone.

The issue is a major political headache for Republicans, who have been bashed by Democrats for falling short of full funding — even though funding also fell short when Democrats were in charge. GOP leaders persuaded voters to reject a referendum to enshrine a mandate for higher funding in the state constitution in 2015, and then pledged to change the system, hiring a nonprofit consulting group called EdBuild.

EdBuild’s proposal, though, called for forcing some property-rich districts to contribute more property taxes, which would have increased overall funding from current levels, but led to possible cuts or higher taxes for 30 districts, including influential Republican strongholds such as Madison County. That clearly caused some heartburn in the House, where Gunn’s lieutenants pledged no higher contributions would be required.

Gunn, on Thursday, wouldn’t commit as to whether that’s his position. But if it is, it makes the rest of the EdBuild proposal more expensive, raising questions about whether the state could fund it in an environment where tax revenue is weak.


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