Barbour: Calling MAEP artificial doesn’t mean formula is ‘bad’

Published 5:10 pm Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gov. Haley Barbour says his proposed state budget for the coming year increases money for kindergarten through graduate school but does not fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which he has been calling an “artificial formula.”

“It is a formula. It was artificially created. That doesn’t make it bad,” Barbour said Tuesday as he unveiled his nearly $5.4 billion spending plan.

He said his budget is balanced, as required by state law, and will build up a rainy day fund that has dwindled in recent years. He is not proposing any tax increases.

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The Republican, who plans seek another term next year, also said he won’t agree to what lawmakers and his Democratic predecessor, Ronnie Musgrove, did during the last election-year budget cycle — setting the education spending figure before deciding how much money to give other programs.

Barbour said that was “wildly irresponsible.”

“If you’ve got two children, you don’t say we’re going to give one child everything he or she wants before you even start looking at the budget,” he said.

During the three-month session that starts in January, officials will set a state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Mississippi lawmakers frequently ignore governors’ budget suggestions.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee — with seven members from the House and seven from the Senate — will release its own budget plan at the end of this month.

Beverly Brahan, president of the 8,000-member Mississippi Association of Educators, attended Barbour’s budget news conference and said his proposal “doesn’t address the needs of Mississippi school children.”

Brahan said the teachers’ union wants to see MAEP fully funded.

“The MAEP is just the bottom line to make sure every child in the state, regardless of where they live, has a quality education,” she said.

MAEP is a complicated plan designed to ensure that every school district has enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. It was put in state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only once, during the election year of 2003.

As Senate Education Committee chairman and later as lieutenant governor, Musgrove was among the chief supporters of pushing MAEP into law. As lieutenant governor, he gathered votes in the Senate to override a veto by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, a Republican.

MAEP supporters tout the formula as a way for Mississippi to avoid the kind of equity-funding lawsuits that other states have faced.

During the 2003 campaign, Barbour said he supported the concept of MAEP. At a gathering of state business leaders earlier this month, the governor called it an “artificial formula.”

A reporter asked Barbour Tuesday if his stance had changed since 2003.

“Nothing has changed, except apparently some people don’t want to hear it described as an artificial formula, even though I think every one of them will admit a bunch of people got together, studied this and tried to come up with a formula to say how much we ought to spend,” Barbour said. “But, again, that doesn’t make it something bad.”

State education officials say fully funding MAEP for the coming year would cost $158 million more than was put into the formula for the current year.

Barbour proposes putting $159 million more into elementary and secondary education next year, but he says the money would not all go to MAEP. Instead, some would go into a 3 percent teacher pay raise and some would go into other programs, including one to identify young children with dyslexia.