April 30, 2012 10:19:59 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers on Saturday approved most parts of a $5.6 billion budget with only a few arguments about the level of education funding and whether to set aside money for an anticipated legal fight over voter ID.
"Let me commend you on a hard day's work," Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, told visibly tired House members as they prepared to head home for a few hours to see their families and pick up clean clothes for what is supposed to be the final week of the four-month session.
If legislators stick to their schedule, they'll finish the session by May 6. They still have to wrap up work on several big issues, including proposals to change the workers compensation system and to revise the attorney general's power to award contracts to private lawyers.
Legislators approved bills to fund several big-ticket state services such as education, mental health and prisons. A few budgets were being negotiated late Saturday, including those for the Department of Public Safety, the Mississippi Development Authority and Medicaid.
The overall budget includes spending reductions for most state agencies. Universities would receive roughly the same amount that they're receiving in the current fiscal year, while spending will increase slightly for elementary and secondary schools and community colleges.
The budget also allows about $200 million to be set aside in state reserves, so it can be used during tight budget years in the future.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, unsuccessfully tried to persuade the House to send the K-12 education budget, House Bill 1593, back for more work -- and more money. The budget is about $250 million short of full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the complex formula that's designed to make sure each district receives enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. MAEP has been fully funded only two of the past 14 years.
"I had a superintendent call me this week who said, 'Why don't you just call it MIEP, Mississippi Inadequate Education Program, if that's what you're going to do?"' said Brown, a former House Education Committee chairman.
Brown said it doesn't make sense to put $200 million into a rainy day fund when MAEP is $250 million short.
The current House Education chairman, Republican Rep. John Moore of Brandon, said sending the K-12 budget back for more work would be useless. He said leaders are committed to rebuilding the reserve funds that have shrunk the past several years.
Some Senate Democrats opposed the secretary of state's budget, Senate Bill 3007, because it includes $395,000 for anticipated litigation to defend a voter identification law that might be enacted.
The secretary of state's budget passed the Senate 28-14, with many Democrats voting no.