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State bails out schools with stimulus funds




JACKSON â€" State legislators and other government officials are breathing a big sigh of relief about getting millions of federal dollars to help Mississippi recover from the country’s economic collapse, but they’re facing the hard task of how to spend the money. 


“We know it’ll be a significant impact. We just don’t know what the impact will be,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. 


“We’re still unraveling it,” he said. 


Gov. Haley Barbour and the Legislature are waiting for more information about the estimated $2.3 billion Mississippi will get from the economic stimulus program President Obama signed into law Tuesday. 


“It could help with the budget this year and next year, but we’re waiting for details,” said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus. 


Among Mississippi’s most immediate need is money to bail out four school districts â€" including Noxubee County â€" on the brink of running out of cash in the coming month and being taken over by the state. 


The state Senate today voted to spend $3 million from the federal economic stimulus fund to enable the state Department of Education to seize control of the school districts and pay school teachers. 


“I cannot foresee any situation where the Legislature would allow these districts to close their doors at the end of March â€" even because of local mismanagement,” Nunnelee said. “We have a moral and constitutional responsibility to the children of those schools.” 


The massive economic stimulus initiative is a $787 billion combination of more spending and new tax cuts to save or create more jobs, spur the country’s crippled economy and help relieve state and local governments’ budget pressures. 


For Mississippi, about $800 million is earmarked for Medicaid, $734 million for education and $415 million for transportation construction, according to estimates provided by the U.S. Congress and Mississippi Legislature. 


Republicans have expressed qualms about the costs of the federal bailout. 


“There’s no doubt a stimulus package is needed, but we could have spent half as much money and created as many jobs,” Barbour said. 


He has said in recent weeks he might not want some money if attached to conditions he opposes, but he said this week to expect Mississippi to take most of the money. 


Chism said Mississippi needs the financial help as it faces revenue shortfalls and demands for more spending to help people who’ve lost their jobs. 


“We ought to accept the money. If we’re looking at a gift horse in the mouth, we need to accept the money,” Chism said. 


Democrats are welcoming the economic stimulus money with open arms. 


“We need it for jobs and highways and bridges. A lot of towns need it. We need it for education and Medicaid,” said Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus. 


Mississippi lawmakers are currently passing state budget bills, even though they don’t know how the federal stimulus package will impact them. Their legislative rules require initial action by Wednesday. 


The Senate today and Thursday approved the first drafts of its budget bills. The House did the same Tuesday, but the appropriations will be vastly different by the time they’re finalized when the Legislature adjourns in April. 


“These bills might just as well be written in hieroglyphics because any numbers I have before you today most probably will change,” Nunnelee said Thursday. 


Among the key questions being asked is who wields the power in spending the federal largesse â€" Barbour or the Legislature. “That’s a fair question. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t have an answer,” Nunnelee said. 


That could be a major point of contention between the Republican governor, the GOP-led Senate and the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives. 


“There’s always conflict,” Harrison said. 


When Hurricane Katrina demolished south Mississippi in 2005, the federal government gave the state about $3 billion â€" with Barbour controlling much of those expenditures with little legislative input. 


“Hopefully, the House will have more say,” Harrison said. 


However, whatever the Legislature passes, Chism noted, Barbour can veto and likely be sustained by the Senate and House. 


The new economic stimulus program has broad categories for where the money goes. For example, millions of dollars are slated for education programs including technology grants and Title I, the main source of federal funding for poor students. 


But there will be quarrels over precisely where the money goes. And there will also be demands for Mississippi to spend more money to match the increased Medicaid funds coming from Washington. 


“We’re going to have problems two years from now trying to fill the same Medicaid hole,” Chism said.




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