Democratic rep: Too many school districts in Miss.

Published 12:30 pm Friday, October 23, 2009

Mississippi can’t afford to keep all 152 school districts, eight public universities and an extensive system of community and junior colleges, a leading Democrat on the state budget committee said Wednesday.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, told several hundred people at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob social event that in a state with 82 counties, there’s no need to have hundreds of superintendents, other administrators and assistants. He was just one of several officials who talked about trimming the costs of government.

“Shouldn’t the money be going to the classroom with the students?” said Flaggs, who represents an area where two school districts — Vicksburg and Warren County — consolidated during the late 1980s.

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His remarks drew applause from the business-friendly audience at the gathering sponsored by the state’s chamber of commerce. Some spectators munched peanuts as they listened to politicians’ speeches under a white circus-style tent on a parking lot at the state Agriculture museum.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour told the crowd what he has been saying for months: He believes state spending will be tight for the next couple of years. He has already cut nearly $172 million from the $6 billion budget that started July 1, and he has said more cuts are likely.

“This is serious business and we can’t address it by saying, well, let’s just save a little here and there,” Barbour said.

About $452 million of federal stimulus money went into Mississippi’s budget this year for education, Medicaid and other services, and that will all disappear during the next two years, officials said.

Barbour said some agencies might have to combine or to share services. He said no state agency will be exempt from finding ways to save money.

“It is much, much better for the taxpayers and the people of Mississippi to have a government they can afford than to have a government that has to take more and more and more from them so that we don’t have a healthy economy in the state,” Barbour said.

Barbour said the state collected about 12 percent less revenue during the first three months of this fiscal year than during the same period a year ago. He said he expects another decrease next year.

State Treasurer Tate Reeves, a Republican, said Mississippi has never had three consecutive years of shrinking revenue.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, also a Republican, said the state could save up to $150,000 to $200,000 by shortening the 2010 legislative session from 90 days to 60 days. He said he also wants state agencies to be more specific in setting goals as they ask lawmakers to approve their spending plans.