Analysis: Mississippians have noticed budget cuts

Published 2:52 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2010

As head of the Republican Governors Association, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour is raising his national profile this fall by traveling to dozens of states and campaigning for his party’s gubernatorial candidates.

Barbour’s telling voters that Republicans are better than Democrats at handling taxpayers’ dollars. He’s also painting an unrealistically rosy picture of Mississippi’s budget situation.

“My budget this year in Mississippi is 13 percent less than it was two years ago. I cut spending 9.7 percent last year. Frankly, nobody much noticed the difference,” a confident Barbour said in late August on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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It’s true that Mississippi’s budget has been shrinking during the tough economy of the past couple of years, and that Barbour made serious spending cuts during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

It’s not true, however, that “nobody much noticed the difference.”

Just ask Ed Patton of Hazlehurst, the only chancery judge for Copiah and Lincoln counties. The stress was visible on Patton’s face as he appeared before the Joint Legislative Budget Committee last month to plead for better funding of trial courts during the fiscal year that begins next July 1.

Patton said 1,910 new cases were filed in his district in 2009 for important matters such as child support.

“When we have cuts in our staff, I can just physically do so much,” Patton said.

To be clear, Patton never mentioned the governor and he said he understands state leaders are faced with difficult decisions when revenue is short. Still, his was just one example of how the tight state budget is having a real impact on people’s lives.

Ed Legrand, director of the state Department of Mental Health, said funding shortfalls could lead to increased numbers of mentally ill people being held in jails while awaiting treatment.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said people like to talk about trimming the fat from state government, but: “We’re to the bones now.”

State Department of Education officials told lawmakers that because money was tight, Mississippi schools didn’t renew contracts this academic year for about 705 certified teachers. With a teacher corps of about 33,000 positions, that’s a loss of about 2 percent.

Todd Ivey, the department’s finance director, said other jobs were left unfilled this year as well: 164 positions for administrators, counselors and librarians; 792 for teacher assistants; and 401 for noncertified workers such as custodians. Ivey said he didn’t have information readily available about the percentage of jobs cut in each of those categories.

A loss of 705 certified teachers and 792 teacher assistants affects tens of thousands of students who will receive less attention because they’re in larger classes, said Oleta Fitzgerald, director of the Children’s Defense Fund southern regional office.

“It just keeps getting worse and worse in the early grades,” Fitzgerald said.

Mississippi is receiving $98 million in federal stimulus funding for education as part of a $26.1 billion jobs package. State Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham said some districts will use their share of the stimulus money to rehire teachers.

Barbour, however, is encouraging local school districts not to spend the money this year. He wants them to sock it away for use sometime after July 1, 2011 — a time he says the budget looks even bleaker because millions of other stimulus dollars are disappearing.