Barbour makes budget cuts, spares public schools

Published 2:06 pm Friday, November 14, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour on Wednesday cut nearly 2 percent from the $5 billion state budget but didn’t touch some big-ticket programs, including Medicaid and the stream of cash that helps public schools meet state standards.

Among the other items that were spared: the state Department of Health, repayment of the state’s long-term debt and payments for some lawsuit settlements, including a 2001 deal that required Mississippi to put millions of dollars into historically black universities to compensate for past neglect and a 2008 deal that required state government to improve services for children in foster care.

The total $42 million in cuts to other agencies — from the Arts Commission to the Department of Corrections — will take effect next week. The governor’s office, the Legislature and the judiciary are among those ordered to cut costs.

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“The governor’s office is in the process of revising its budget just like he’s asked all the other agencies to do,” Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said. “It’s being worked on.”

A Democrat on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said Barbour, a Republican, “minimized the hurt to the state” by sparing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program — the complex funding formula that’s designed to ensure every school district receives enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

“It seems like he’s getting it. It seems like the governor has cut based on the priorities of the state and its needs and its challenges for the future,” Rep. George Flaggs of Vicksburg said Wednesday. “I have every intention of working with the governor if he keeps us going in that progressive direction for the state.”

State law forced Barbour to trim spending because state tax collections fell short of expectations for the first four months of the state budget year, from July through October.

“The past few months have made it clear our national and global economies are facing uncertain times, and it’s imperative we realize Mississippi is not immune,” Barbour said in a news release.

Barbour said more budget cuts may be needed before the fiscal year ends June 30.

This is Barbour’s fifth year in office, and the first time a shortfall in tax collections has made him to order midyear spending reductions.

Because of the sputtering state and national economies, the governor told agency directors several weeks ago that they should look for ways to trim their spending.

Some agencies might let vacant jobs go unfilled or trim their travel expenses. Tom Hood, the state Ethics Commission director, said he’ll have a hard time doing that with his eight-person staff.

“It’s rough on small agencies like ours. We don’t have any fat to cut,” Hood said.

He said the Ethics Commission sought to reduce its travel expenses by paying cash this year for two used sedans at a government auction. The commission’s investigators will use those rather than getting paid mileage for driving their own cars. Hood said the purchase was recommended by the state Department of Finance and Administration, which is overseen by the governor. The commission won’t see the savings until next year because of the one-time expense of buying the cars this year, Hood said.

Barbour is attending the Republican Governors Association convention in Miami this week, but Smith said the governor is not traveling at taxpayer expense. Smith said he didn’t know who’s paying the tab.

The other items that won’t be cut, according to the governor:

— Homestead exemption property tax reimbursements to cities and counties.

— The Department of Human Services’ programs for families, children and youth, including child-support collection, child abuse prevention and economic assistance such as food stamps.

— College students’ financial aid.

— Half of the budget for the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, which has the state’s top-ranked trauma center and treats a large number of uninsured patients.

— The Mississippi School for the Blind and the Mississippi School for the Deaf.

— Vocational and technical programs for public schools.

Flaggs and other House Democrats had said if Barbour were to cut MAEP, they would try to put money back into the schools by taking cash out of the rainy day fund, which provides a financial cushion for the state budget.

The rainy day fund has a balance of about $367 million. Barbour doesn’t want to deplete it because he believes Mississippi could face tough economic times for at least the next two years.