February 18, 2009
JACKSON â€" The state Legislature has begun passing budget bills not knowing how much money Mississippi will have from the $787 billion package President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday to pump up the economy and distribute funds to state governments suffering revenue shortfalls.
Among Mississippiâ€™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 and being taken over by the state.
Legislators and other Mississippi government officials are eager to know the complexities of how they can spend the estimated $2.3 billion allotted to Mississippi from the massive economic stimulus initiative, which combines more spending and new tax cuts to spur the countryâ€™s crippled economy.
â€œThere are a lot of â€~ifs,â€™â€ said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.
â€œItâ€™s early. The information is trickling in,â€ said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
Adhering to their normal timetable to have state budget billsâ€™ first drafts passed by next Wednesday, the Mississippi House and Senate are cranking out appropriations that will likely be dramatically changed when they actually get the federal stimulus money in their hands.
The Legislature is required by its rules to have state budget bills finished by the end of March.
Gov. Haley Barbour was also studying how the packageâ€™s multibillion-dollar aid to states will impact Mississippi. The Republican governorâ€™s press secretary, Dan Turner, said Barbour was trying to find answers to the many questions about the package.
Barbour â€" like many Republicans â€" has expressed opposition to the economic stimulus bill Democrats pushed through the U.S. Congress last week for the president to enact. Barbour said it cost too much money.
The most pressing question now is how much of Mississippiâ€™s share can be plugged into the state budget the Legislature is now working on.
Thereâ€™s $1.5 billion for Mississippi in The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act for education and transportation construction projects, according to U.S. Rep. Travis Childersâ€™ office.
In addition, an estimated $780 million is set aside for Mississippiâ€™s Medicaid program, said state House Public Health and Welfare Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. Congress put $87 billion into the economic stimulus bill to help the 50 states with budget shortfalls in the health care program for the poor and disabled.
State governmentâ€™s current budget began the fiscal year last July with a total of $18.9 billion. Barbour has cut $200 million of that to balance the budget as state revenues fall short of whatâ€™s needed. The cuts include about $90 million taken out of elementary-secondary education.
While all Mississippi school districts took a hit, Noxubee County and three others are about to collapse financially, said state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds.
He told the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday that the Noxubee County, Indianola, Kemper County and Tate County school districts wonâ€™t have enough money to pay employees.
Bounds said the only option left is for the state Department of Education to intervene.
â€œWeâ€™ve exhausted every source we can,â€ he said.
The Legislature needs to quickly provide $5 million in emergency funding for the school takeovers, he said.
Nunnelee said he didnâ€™t know Tuesday what the Legislature will do, but he told Bounds measures will be taken to ensure the schools donâ€™t close.
The Democratic-dominated House of Representatives last month did approve restoring $68 million Barbour cut from education, but the Republican-led Senate voted 25-24 against such measures last week.
The federal stimulus package will send $250 million directly to Mississippi school districts and $484 million to state government to prevent teacher layoffs and other cutbacks in education, according to Childersâ€™ congressional office. However, Bounds said Tuesday his department is still analyzing how that money can help the four districts in most trouble.
According to Childersâ€™ office, the Columbus School District â€" in the Golden Triangleâ€™s largest city â€" gets $3.2 million and Clay County â€" the areaâ€™s smallest school district â€" gets $278,000.
To keep afloat through June, Bounds said, Noxubee County schools need $800,000.
McCoy is urging Barbour to ease reservations heâ€™s had about Mississippi accepting federal money if he thinks itâ€™s an unwise expenditure.
â€œOur citizens deserve at least their share in this undertaking. Mississippi does not have assets to battle this crisis alone. Our nationâ€™s resources are being mustered to address national problems. We should show weâ€™re part of the U.S.,â€ House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said in a statement issued by his office.
Barbour said he expects Mississippi will use much of Mississippiâ€™s share of the economic stimulus allotment.
â€œIâ€™ve never said we were going to reject it. I have said, however, that we are going to make prudent decisions based on whatâ€™s best for Mississippi,â€ Barbour said in a statement issued by his office today.
He said much of the federal package has no strings attached or the requirements for spending are minimal. There are some provisions still being examined to determine whether Mississippi should change state policies and procedures to accept its portions, he said.
The economic bailout bill includes billions of dollars in aid to states that legislatures can use even if governors donâ€™t want the money.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, governors must certify within 45 days their intention to request and use the funds. State legislature may certify the stateâ€™s intention to use any funds if governors donâ€™t accept the money.