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Budget Woes: School contracts in Limbo




JACKSON -- The House and Senate concluded their five-month session last night in gridlocked failure over the state budget and now await Gov. Haley Barbour to order them back. 


"The Legislature has not done its job, and we''ve been here since January," said Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus. 


"We tried. We did our job. We just didn''t complete it," Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, said as she and other legislators filed out of the state Capitol at midnight. 


Meanwhile, several school districts are waiting to see what funding the state will offer the Mississippi Adequate Education Program before they divvy out contracts for the upcoming school year. 


"We''re on hold, you might say, until we see something from the Legislature," said Lowndes County School District Superintendent Mike Halford, who wants to ensure he doesn''t dole out contracts for positions that might have to be cut, due to funding, in the future. 


"If we''re going to need to make cuts, let''s do them upfront," said Halford, who noted cutting classroom instruction would be a "last resort." 


This past school year, the district faces a shortfall of about $750,000 after state adjusted its budget. 


Stimulus funds could make up for the lost funds, but the money is yet to be seen. 


"Eventually, someone''s got to make a decision, because if they don''t I''m afraid we''re going to lose some good teachers, because they could take a contract with another district," said Halford, noting there are other districts in the state which have issued contracts. 


"They would have to have the fund balance to do that. ... Our intent is to hold (contracts) until we have some very good information," he continued. "We don''t want to end up with a shortfall and have an emergency situation." 


Columbus Municipal School District also is holding off issuing contracts, as is Aberdeen School District and Amory School District. 


CMSD Superintendent Dr. Del Phillips says no positions will be cut for the upcoming school year, regardless of the amount of money allotted through MAEP. The district in March approved employee renewals for the 2009-2010 school year. 


"The contract specifies how much money you''ll receive for the following year," said Phillips, who anticipated potential delays in distributing contracts, sending out a letter to inform district employees. 


"We sent a letter at the end of the school year saying the pay would be based on the state allocation for MAEP," he noted. 


Oktibbeha County, Starkville, West Point and Noxubee County school districts already have issued contracts for the coming year. 


Barbour will call a special session soon to give the Legislature another chance to pass the state''s $18 billion budget and avert a government shutdown July 1. 


Republicans wanting to give the GOP governor more power over the budget blocked the Democratic-controlled House''s efforts to extend the session. 


"We don''t have any problems having Haley take control of the budget," said Brown, one of the GOP-controlled Senate''s leaders. 


Governors by law dictate what bills the Legislature can take up in special sessions. 


House Democratic leaders tried three times Wednesday to pass a resolution to avoid that. 


"The worst thing for us to do is go home and not do our job," said House Rules Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive. "We''re telling the people we can''t do it. The governor has got to do it." 


The main budget hang-up is the dispute over whether to hold back $60 million for another year to help cover future Medicaid costs. The Senate wants to save the money. The House wants to spend it now. 


The failure of the House and Senate to pass a budget made legislators pessimistic and worried they won''t be able to provide the funds needed to operate the state past June 30. 


"The way we''re doing now, that''s the way it looks," Harrison said. 


The House voted 72-42 late last night to stay in session until June 10, but it fell short of the 76 votes required for extending legislative sessions. The 39 Republicans and three Democrats against staying in session -- by their votes -- said Barbour is the best hope for getting a budget passed in a special session. 


The Senate''s Republican leaders also see the governor as the one to push through a budget resolution. 


"The governor will have a real impact on the budget -- as he should," said Senate President Phil Bryant, who''s also the state''s lieutenant governor. "We will now have an executive who''s actively involved in the process." 


Barbour has already exerted himself in the Legislature''s efforts to negotiate a budget, which normally is completed in late March. He and the Legislature agreed two months ago to extend their annual lawmaking session to give themselves more time to analyze federal stimulus funds and to hash out their differences. 


"We''re not trying to make excuses, but we''ve had some extremely difficult situations that we''ve not had before," Brown said. 


He pointed to the county''s economic meltdown and the legislative tug-of-war over how to spend more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds the state is getting to help weather the recession. 


"The Senate is trying to be as fiscally conservative as we can. You don''t want to put too much of that stimulus money into ongoing expenses," said Brown, noting the federal funds will last only until 2011. "After that, they''re not going to be there again." 


However, House Democrats say Barbour and the Senate are being too miserly in insisting $60 million in state funds be stashed away when education, health care and other public services need the money now. 


"This is reckless," House Speaker Billy McCoy said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Today we find that the Senate proposal is underfunded. We''re deadlocked over trying to put aside $60 million for the future even though we already have almost three quarters of a billion dollars in surplus." 


However, Bryant said the state needs to save money for what he expects will be more difficult budget woes in the next couple of years. 


"I will not build a budget that spends all the money we have now and not prepare for even more turbulent financial times facing us in 2011 and 2012," he said. 


Barbour said he''ll wait to call a special legislative session until House-Senate negotiators reach a budget compromise for the Legislature to vote on. 


"I''m not going to make the legislators come down here and sit around and twiddle their thumbs and waste the taxpayers'' money, as has been the case the last two months," he said. "So I will not call the special session until they are ready to act - until there''s an agreement through some process." 


The Legislature left dead 106 appropriation bills to fund state government for the fiscal year that starts July 1. 


They include small allocations - such as $143,000 for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority and $261,000 for the state Board of Physical Therapy -- and huge portions -- such as $3 billion to the state Board of Education and $4 billion for the state Division of Medicaid. 


This story contains reporting from Dispatch news Editor Garthia Elena Burnett.




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