December 12, 2012 10:19:34 AM
JACKSON -- Most parts of Mississippi education, from kindergarten through college, would receive the same amount of state funding next year as this year, under a budget proposal released Tuesday by House and Senate leaders.
The 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee proposes spending $5.5 billion in state money during fiscal 2014, which begins July 1 next year. That's slightly less state money, overall, than is being spent in the current year.
The plan does not recommend tax increases or state employee pay raises.
Lawmakers propose saving money by eliminating about 2,000 state jobs that have been vacant at least 60 days and by reducing travel and contract services. No current employees would be laid off.
"Our goal is to live within our means," said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, the current chairman of the committee.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant released his own budget proposal last month, recommending most agencies take a 1.5 percent cut.
All 122 House members and 52 senators will consider the two proposals, and other ideas, with an April deadline to adopt a state spending plan.
Under the legislative plan, some programs, such as the Highway Patrol and the Department of Corrections, would receive the same amount of funding next year.
The Budget Committee recommends increases for four areas: an additional $20 million would go to state-aid roads and bridges; $2 million to restore a portion of teacher supply funds, which have been cut for years; $800,000 to the Court of Appeals, district attorneys and trial judges; and $400,000 to the Forestry Commission, which has seen its budget reduced repeatedly in recent years.
Lawmakers propose reducing money for some programs and leaving others funded at current levels. The largest proposed cut is a 27-percent reduction to the Division of Support Services under the Department of Public Safety. They also propose a 20.7-percent reduction for the Law Enforcement Training Academy, which is also part of DPS. The DPS budget, overall, would be cut 3.6 percent under the legislators' plan.
"It's a difficult budget, but it's a responsible budget and it's a realistic budget," Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said.
The legislative plan does not address the $52 million increase that has been requested for the Public Employees Retirement System. If lawmakers don't find money for the request, the PERS board several months from now could demand that state agency directors dig into their budgets to find the money -- an action that would be tantamount to a budget reduction for agencies.
"The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the $52 million for retirement," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville. "We're aware of it. We just don't have an answer right now."
Although lawmakers propose level funding for education, those recommendations fall tens of millions of dollars short of requests made by public schools, community colleges and universities.
The governor's budget includes some specific education funding that the legislative plan does not have, including $15 million for literacy training for teachers. Bryant wants more emphasis on ensuring children can read at grade-level standards by third grade. He said he wants to create a merit-pay program for teachers in four districts that have volunteered to be part of a pilot program.
Bryant would exempt several parts of government from cuts, including public safety programs and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Under the legislative proposal, the medical center would see a slight reduction.
Legislators said they propose reducing the reliance on "one-time money," or money that is available only a single year at a time. They used $413 million in the current year and propose using $154 million in the coming year. Lawmakers say using "one-time" money is problematic because it doesn't provide enough assurance to agency directors that steady funding will be available from year to year.
Bryant said his budget would reduce the amount of "one-time money" by $93 million.