Miss. lawmakers approve most of $5 B state budget

Published 6:47 pm Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mississippi lawmakers gave final approval Monday to most of a state budget that reflects uncertainty about ups and downs in the economy.

The new budget year starts July 1, and most agencies will get roughly the same amount of money that they’re getting now. Legislators were still squabbling late Monday about Medicaid.

Lawmakers said they wanted to be conservative in setting spending plans for the coming year because Mississippi is seeing only modest economic growth, and financial experts are worried about the condition of the national economy amid growing gasoline prices and a shaky housing market.

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The $5 billion budget does not include any tax increases.

Because lawmakers didn’t fulfill requests to put significantly more money into higher education, many legislators expect the College Board to approve a tuition increase at the eight public universities.

“You talk about the disguising of the tax increase. I don’t think the tax increase is very well disguised. I think it is upon us,” said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston.

The general fund — the largest state-funded part of the budget — will be just over $5 billion. Federal money and other sources of revenue, including state gasoline taxes, bring the overall figure to $19.2 billion.

That’s only a slight increase over the budget for the year that ends June 30.

In one of the most unusual metaphors of the legislative session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee compared the individual parts of the budget to boiled okra.

“It’s just kind of slick and slimy and I don’t like boiled okra on its own,” said Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.

He said the budget bills might not be palatable on their own — but they are good once they’re blended into the gumbo of the overall state spending plan.

Legislators are fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to ensure that each school district receives enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years.

This marks the first time MAEP will have been fully funded in a year when legislators and statewide officials were not up for re-election.

Elementary and secondary teachers will not receive an across-the-board pay increase. But, the compromise budget makes the most experienced teachers eligible for annual incremental pay raises. Under current law, teachers get the annual increments for 25 years; that will increase to 30 years.

Some lawmakers complained that too little money is being set aside for classroom supplies. The budget for the coming year has $7 million for supplies, up slightly from $6.5 million this year.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said under formulas that have been ignored the past several years, the state should be putting about $25 million into classroom supplies. Instead, millions of dollars have been shuffled into the MAEP portion of the education budget.

Tollison said many teachers are digging into their own wallets to buy supplies for their students.

“Just like you do in a tight budget in your family, we have to prioritize when we have a tight (state) budget,” Tollison said.