Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A word from Rep. Cecil Brown about the budget battle

Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson)
Here we are, days away from the end of the 2011 legislative session, and we still don’t have a state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour remain at odds over the budget with the governor insistent on cutting funding levels for state agencies. We in the state House staunchly disagree. We believe there is no reason to cut state agency funding when we clearly have adequate money.

Let me explain our key areas of disagreement.

Education tops the list. House and Senate members have approved the same level of funding for K-12 public schools, $2.2 billion. House and Senate members also have approved the same level of funding for community colleges, $233 million.

The governor, though, wants to reduce K-12 funding by $30 million. While the figure is down from the $65 million he wanted last week, the $30 million would still sting tremendously because it would include $6 million to reimburse teachers for classroom expenses and $24 million from school operating expenses and teacher salaries. That’s unacceptable.

Education has weathered some tough times. Over the past three years, we have reduced K-12 spending by more than $300 million. We have seen teachers lose their jobs. We have seen academic programs eliminated at some schools. And we have seen the teacher-student ratio increase. This is no way to run a school system. Education simply can’t afford additional cuts.

Here’s another important point: If we followed through with the governor’s plan, local property taxes most assuredly will increase as school districts try to find ways to fund day-to-day expenses. In other words, the governor’s proposed funding cuts are nothing more than a backdoor tax increase.

Mental health is another point of disagreement. House members voted to fund mental health by $252 million, including $20 million to operate community mental health facilities. Gov. Barbour wants to fund mental health at $235 million.

The governor’s funding level does not include enough money to operate the community mental health facilities. These local offices that treat and care for people with no other places to go would shut down. Patients would end up on the street or back in jail where many were before. There is just no reason to make this cut when there are funds available to pay for these local centers, especially since they use these state funds as a match for more Medicaid funds.

Another area of disagreement is agriculture units at Mississippi State University and Alcorn State University. The House voted to fund the units at $75 million, but the governor wants to cut the funding by $5.4 million.

The governor’s reasoning is unclear. Perhaps it is in retaliation for the Mississippi Farm Bureau’s opposition to his position on eminent domain. In any case, this proposed cut is arbitrary and destructive to jobs in agriculture in Mississippi.

Our state has not been immune to the economic problems that have dominated our country.

To that end, we in the House have provided a proposal to the Senate to properly fund education, mental health and university priorities while leaving more than a $200 million balance in the rainy day and reserve funds in addition to the $47 million balance in the Hurricane Disaster Funds. Ours is a sound budget. A fair budget. A good budget.

- Rep. Cecil Brown (D-Jackson)
  House Education Committee Chairman

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