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Hurricane Recovery to Shape Mississippi’s 2006 Budget

Wed January 18, 2006 - National Edition
CEG



JACKSON, MS (AP) The 2006 legislative session will be shaped by leftover business from 2005, primarily hurricane recovery and a retread of the governor’s education proposals.

Lawmakers’ toughest task — writing a budget — will be delayed until late in the three-month session because officials want plenty of time to gather information about how the state’s economy is performing after Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s going to be a tough session anyway. But Katrina just complicates it,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who pulls double duty as House Education Committee chairman and a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Katrina struck Aug. 29, killing at least 231 Mississippians, leaving tens of thousands homeless and destroying a significant part of the economy. Officials are still trying to figure out how much money the state will have to spend to match federal hurricane-recovery funds Congress approved in late December.

Gov. Haley Barbour said he wants state lawmakers to wait until March before starting any serious budget work.

“It’s just a waste of time until we see where we really stand,” Barbour said.

The new state fiscal year starts July 1. In a typical session, legislators do some preliminary budget work in the first couple of months and save most of their heavy lifting for late March or early April.

This year, Barbour said they should delay even outlining a budget until they analyze tax collection trends through the end of February.

Barbour, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Billy McCoy all said they want to give state employees a pay raise and put more money into higher education.

“I think there’s a general consensus among us: As we can within the budget, we really need to accent community colleges and universities, and at the same time not go back on K to 12,” said McCoy, D-Rienzi.

Tuck wants to fully fund mental-health crisis centers, which got only half funding for the current budget year. She listed a local bridge-replacement program as a budget priority, and McCoy said he wanted to make sure the state’s transportation system, generally, is in working order.

Many lawmakers, including Tuck, said they want to trot out proposals for early childhood education.

“I feel like there’s such a true need, and children deserve it,” Tuck said.

All the wish lists come with the same stipulation: They can only be done if there’s enough money to go around.

Barbour and top lawmakers stop short of saying they’re promising a raise for state workers. But Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said she’ll push officials to make a commitment to the people who do everything from planning highways to changing bedpans at the state mental hospital.

“We’re just tired of having lip service,” Scott said. “We want them to walk the talk.”

Teachers have gotten a pay boost of several thousand dollars over the past five years, but most other state employees have seen only modest increases — some as little as $600.

“Our workers have been so patient and tolerant, our state employees have,” McCoy said. “They can’t stay forever just in the doldrums there.”

The governor is recycling some of his education proposals from the 2005 session, including one for “home rule.” That would allow high-performing districts to run themselves without detailed oversight by the state.

“I’m going to focus a huge amount of my … legislative effort in the first two months of the year on trying to get an education reform package passed that’s not about money but is about improving education,” Barbour said.

A committee of lawmakers and others will recommend changes to the state’s complicated school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only once — in the budget year that ended on June 30, 2004.

Superintendents in some fast-growing school districts, including DeSoto County, said the formula needs to be tweaked to help them handle the influx of new students. Lawmakers will consider recommendations for changing MAEP, but there’s no guarantee that any changes will pass.

One of the biggest economic development projects being pushed in the coming session is the Wellspring site in northeast Mississippi. Officials in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties are asking the state to spend $14.5 million to help buy and prepare the 1,700-acre site to market it to auto makers. The three counties, collectively, would spend $4.5 million.

It’s not unusual for the state to finance development projects, but public funding usually is approved with specific projects or manufacturers in mind. Some state officials said they’re leery of issuing $14.5 million in bonds without a guarantee that at least one industry will develop.

Debate over economic projects frequently pits one part of the state against others, but some lawmakers said they’ll set aside regional differences to discuss Wellspring.

“Whether it’s in Tupelo or whether it’s in Cleveland or whether it’s in Hattiesburg, if it’s good for the state of Mississippi, I’m for it,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point.