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Miss. senators debate funding for corrections

Some Mississippi lawmakers are complaining that prisoners get priority over college students in a proposed state budget that increases funding for the Department of Corrections.

The approval of appropriations bills in the House and Senate this week starts the process for developing a $5 billion state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Most funding bills approved in the Senate will change after officials determine how much federal stimulus money Mississippi will receive and where it can be spent.

A bill passed Friday in the Senate would provide $357 million to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, about $10 million more than what the agency received for the current fiscal year.

The funding bill for general support of state universities was $11 million below what the institutions received this year. State support for junior and community colleges was cut by $2.4 million.

“When we talk about fully funding education, it goes down, down, down. But when we talk about corrections, it always goes up, up, up,” said Sen. Kelvin Butler, a Democrat from Magnolia.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Tupelo, said the federal government requires that states provide housing, food and medical care for prisoners. He said as Mississippi incarcerates more inmates, the costs to care for them increases. There are currently 22,699 inmates in MDOC custody.

Nunnelee said funding for education — from K-12 public education to universities — will be supplemented by the hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money. He said Gov. Haley Barbour and lawmakers are still “unraveling the details” of the stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama earlier this week.

“It is my high hopes this is nowhere near the final numbers we will bring to you,” Nunnelee said.

Barbour has had two rounds of budget cuts for state agencies, citing declining revenue collections. The reductions put some school districts on the brink of bankruptcy, forcing freezes on hiring and spending.

One effect of the budget cuts on universities was a decision by the College Board to reduce financial tuition assistance for 21,000 students. Officials said the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant program will see assistance drop an average of $43 this semester.

Sen. Terry Brown, a Republican from Columbus, said the community and junior colleges are a backbone of the economy because they provide job training. He said that’s essential for workers who have lost their jobs and have to learn new skills to be re-employed.

“Seems like we ought to be increasing the appropriation for these guys and cutting somebody else,” Brown said.

The bills are Senate Bill 3224, Senate Bill 3221 and Senate Bill 3221.