Miss. House OKs deficit bill for higher education

Published 12:11 am Friday, January 9, 2009

A bill that would restore money cut last year from Mississippi’s higher education systems could set the stage for the Legislature’s first battle over dipping into the state’s rainy day fund to cover agency shortfalls.

Lawmakers said the colleges can’t survive without the $17.2 million in funding that was lost through the 2 percent cuts Gov. Haley Barbour ordered in November as a result of declining state revenue.

Supporters of the bill said the money would help the colleges operate for the rest of fiscal year 2009, which ends June 30. It passed 87-34.

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The bill could face opposition in the Senate, where some leaders are opposed to paying for it with money from the state’s rainy day fund, which currently holds $362 million.

Opponents also argue that it’s too early in the 2009 session to know how many agencies and programs might depend on the fund. The three-month session began Tuesday and lawmakers have been saying for months that the budget will be the priority because of a tough economy.

“I’m very reluctant to start spending out of the rainy day fund the first week of the session,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.

The rainy day fund provides a cushion for the state budget during difficult times. Barbour has said he doesn’t want to use more than one-fourth of the fund’s balance in the coming year because he expects a long recession.

Lawmakers have been asked to approve numerous deficit appropriations for agencies and programs. The largest is $37 million to repay long-term debt, said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose. He said more than $60 million in requests have been received so far.

The higher education request, which covers both universities and community colleges, is the only deficit appropriation that’s based on the 2 percent cuts, Stringer said. The state’s 15 community colleges provide work force training programs.

“So many people are losing their jobs, they have to be retrained. We can’t keep selling education short,” Stringer said.

Budget cuts have forced the schools to reduce costs by increasing class sizes, putting off repairs and reducing travel, said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board of Community and Junior Colleges.

“Colleges have tried not to cut staff,” said Clark. “If it should go any further, we’re looking at cutting personnel.”

Nunnelee said Mississippi’s revenue collections are $65 million below estimates in the current fiscal year. He said the Senate will review deficit appropriations to determine “what’s truly an emergency.”

In recent years, universities and community colleges have been raising tuition to make up for state funding reductions, said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston. He said approving the deficit request would show higher education is as important of K-12 public education.

“K-12 wasn’t cut as a result of the budget crisis,” he said.

The bill is House Bill 290.