January 5, 2010 9:30:00 AM
Local legislators agree with Rep. Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville, that three primary issues will top the 2010 legislative session: “Budget, budget and the budget.”
Ellis and other local lawmakers weighed in Monday with their expectations for the session, which begins today. Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, and Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus, see all other issues falling by the wayside unless they directly impact Mississippi’s financial bottom line.
Chism calculates the budget for Fiscal Year 2011 will fall some $700 million short of 2010. Both Gov. Haley Barbour and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee have released proposals calling for steep funding cuts and hiring freezes at all state-funded agencies and entities. It will be up to the House and the Senate to determine which suggestions to keep, which to discard and whether new ideas should be considered.
Despite the complexities involved in such a massive economic undertaking, Chism predicts the Legislature will finish the process with time to spare before the last day of session April 3. He says an across-the-board 15 percent cut would avoid political favoritism while trimming the necessary expenses.
“I think we’re going to divide up the money and go home. Last year, we didn’t get (the budget) finalized until the last day. This year I believe folks just want to get it over with,” said Chism.
Another accepted truth holds that further cuts, beyond the $224 million trimmed by Barbour in September and December, will equal lost jobs.
“Quite frankly, there’s going to be some layoffs,” said Brown. “The private sector has been laying off every day and the government is going to have to follow suit.”
Several cost-cutting ideas proposed by the governor have been met with apprehension or clear opposition due to a perceived lack of savings or an anticipated delay in savings. One such suggestion is the consolidation of the state’s 152 school districts into 100 at an estimated savings of $65 million.
Harrison says district mergers are a politically dangerous situation because few are willing to admit their districts would be better run by another administration. Incoming Superintendent of Schools Tom Burnham has stated his desire the Mississippi Department of Education be given power by the Legislature to choose which districts to consolidate or abolish.
“Everyone wants their school district. I would not vote for (turning consolidating power over to MDE) because I think it should be left up to the school district,” said Harrison.
Currently, the school boards of any two districts wishing to consolidate must both agree to the change. The state does, however, have the power to take over failing districts.
Brown says consolidation of districts must at least be discussed.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, we cannot maintain the budget and Mississippi Adequate Education Program under the dollars we’ve got. We’re going to have to look at consolidating schools or cut their budgets,” said Brown. “We’re going to see if we can consolidate some of those ... that are non-performing (with nearby successful districts).”
Chism says consolidation is unlikely. But if it does occur, he says it won’t be what Barbour had in mind.
“He proposed consolidation based on accreditation level. I think it will happen by size. For example, all districts below 800 students merge (with a nearby district). But I really don’t know whether the Legislature is ready to tackle that issue or not,” said Chism.
Ellis believes the Legislature is not in a position to make a call on consolidation.
“I don’t think you should do it with the stroke of a pen when we’ve had all these years to look at it but have not even had a task force to study it. Now, all of a sudden, we’ve got to do it because our backs are against the wall. That’s reactionary and I don’t favor that,” said Ellis.
A joint legislative task force was created in 2008 to explore educational issues such as consolidation in K-12 schools.
Barbour similarly recommended that the eight state-funded universities merge into five to save an estimated $35 million, a savings that wouldn’t be fully realized until 2012.
The recommended mergers are between Mississippi State University and Mississippi University for Women, and the combination of Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University.
Brown says a merger may be the only way to keep the doors open at MUW. He says the school could be facing a 25 percent cut in FY 2011.
Harrison says merging any state schools is not “politically feasible” due to the lack of financial impact. Chism goes a step further, calling the idea “dead on arrival.”
Chism says House Universities and Colleges Committee Chairman Rep. Kelvin Buck has already expressed his plans to pocket any bill suggesting mergers.
“If one is even introduced, he won’t even bring it up,” says Chism.
He says any momentum the concept gains in the Senate will be lost once senators realize Buck’s intentions.
If savings don’t come through combining school districts and universities, costs must be cut elsewhere. Legislators have discussed combining state agencies with little specificity, which leaves lawmakers looking elsewhere to save.
Ellis says the Legislature should take a long look at the state’s spending practices. He says establishing a clearing house for the state to buy materials and supplies in bulk before distributing them to agencies could be more efficient than allowing agencies to purchase independently.
He recognizes items such as computer equipment and software are specific to given agencies, but suggests a group could be formed to determine which agency needs what equipment.
“We need to have the information technology people look into that and make a determination if there can be collective purchasing,” said Ellis.
He says the necessity of long-standing tax exemptions for agriculture businesses should also be examined.
Brown believes better management of the state’s vehicle fleet will cut costs.
Local legislators will also bring some new ideas to the table before the Jan. 18 deadline for introducing new bills.
Ellis is preparing to pre-file a bill that would give the Public Service Commission authority over local water associations. He says water associations often lack the capacity to meet the needs of new industries, thus creating a roadblock to economic development.
Chism has several bills lined up but doesn’t expect them to pass. One is a requirement that high school biology classes cover the pros and cons of evolution on the first day of each new school year. Another would force any individual who brings a liability lawsuit and loses to pay the defendant’s legal fees.
“That bill won’t go anywhere because it will go to the lawyer committee,” said Chism.
A third bill from Chism suggests all school district board members be elected, and those elected members would then appoint a superintendent.
Of local interest is a plan developed among the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link to request additional time to repay a $13 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to purchase land at the Golden Triangle Global Industrial Aerospace Park.
State law mandates a county repay such loans in 20 years unless special permission is granted by the Legislature. Brown and Chism will bring a request for an additional 10 years’ repayment time before their respective houses. The extra time will save the county an estimated $225,000 per year.
“I’ve already called and got the prelims done,” says Brown of bringing the request before the Senate. “I think it’s a no-brainer. If you’re dealing with economic development, the Legislature is going to look kindly on that.”
“(The request) will go through.” said Chism.