Miss. budget talks stall, top lawmakers to gather in December

Published 4:47 pm Friday, December 1, 2006

Top Mississippi lawmakers are taking at least a week off in their budget talks, with hopes of eventually reconciling differences over how much money to recommend for state agencies in the coming year.

The biggest sticking point is over elementary and secondary education.

House leaders say they won’t agree to a budget blueprint unless it fully funds the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complicated formula designed to ensure every school district has enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

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Some top senators say the House plan would shortchange many other parts of state government, including prisons, Medicaid and debt repayment.

State law sets a Dec. 15 deadline for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to adopt a spending plan to present to the entire House and Senate when the 2007 session starts in January.

“We still hope to craft a meaningful budget before our time runs out,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said Thursday.

Even after the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee adopts a plan, it is only a recommendation. Gov. Haley Barbour released his budget proposal in mid-November.

During the three-month session, it’s common for lawmakers to take some of the recommendations from the Budget Committee and a few ideas from the governor before setting the financial course for state services.

The new fiscal year starts July 1.

The Budget Committee exchanged proposals during a sometimes testy meeting that lasted several hours Wednesday. The group met for only about 15 minutes on Thursday before McCoy, the current committee chairman, said he thought talks would be more productive if the group takes at least a week off to talk to constituents back home.

About 25 parents, teacher union members and education officials attended the Thursday meeting at the Woolfolk state office building near the Capitol.

Rhea Williams-Bishop of Madison has a 13-year-old son, an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son who attend public schools. She said she went to the budget hearing because she wants lawmakers to pay more attention to school funding.

“It seems like education is being put on the back burner,” Williams-Bishop said. “They enacted MAEP. It has been fully funded only once. The longer we put it off, the more children fall through the cracks.”

MAEP was put into state law in 1997, with supporters saying they hoped to avoid the kind of court fight many other states have had over increasing financial support for poor districts.

The formula was phased in over several years, and it has been fully funded only once — during the last statewide election year in 2003.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who serves on the Budget Committee, said House negotiators will accept senators’ other budget recommendations if the senators will accept the House plan to fully fund MAEP.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said that during the session, “we know education is going to be the top priority.”

“But,” he said, “we’re going to do it with real dollars, with what’s available.”