Questions focus on education at annual legislative meeting

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, February 19, 2002

WESSON — Education-related topics dominated discussion Mondayduring the annual Wesson Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfastat the Thames Center on the Copiah-Lincoln Community Collegecampus.

A barrage of questions about education funding, accountabilityand priorities was interrupted only briefly with an occasionalquery about tort reform inaction, an economic development issue ora Copiah County lake project.

“This has really been an education meeting, hasn’t it?” observedDist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett, while asking if anyone wanted totalk about the state’s Medicaid funding woes.

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Instead, Barnett, fellow Rep. Greg Holloway, Dist. 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith and Dist. 36 Sen. Lynn Posey were quizzed about fundingpriorities, holding teachers accountable for meeting educationgoals in the wake of funding cuts and teacher pay raises. Poseysaid lawmakers were trying to make the best decisions with thefunds available.

“I don’t think the philosophy of the legislature has changed inregards to education,” Posey said.

Posey said this year’s session is not over, but he cautionedthat cuts are expected this year and next.

“We’re working with the budget,” Posey said. “This is a toughyear. A lot of decisions have to be made between now and theend.”

Holloway, a member of the House Education Committee, said he wasdisappointed with the direction education is headed in the state.He said lawmakers must prioritize and re-prioritize education,while stressing its importance for economic development.

“We’re in a long fight with a short stick,” said Holloway, ofDistrict 76, which includes Copiah, Claiborne and Hindscounties.

Saying that “misery loves company,” Barnett said the state isnot alone in feeling the budget crunch of slower economic times.Other states are reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks andthe economic slowdown, he said.

“Mississippi is not broke, but it’s badly bent,” Barnettsaid.

Barnett and Hyde-Smith pointed to a skyrocketing correctionsbudget as part of the reason for the education fundingslowdown.

“Corrections is eating us up,” Barnett said. “For every dollarwe’re spending on corrections, we could be spending oneducation.”

Barnett indicated that lawmakers had heeded the public call for”do the crime, do the time” sentencing measures, but that action isnow costing the state.

Hyde-Smith pointed out that over the last 10 years, thecorrections budget has risen from $58 million a year to over $240million.

“It’s obvious where our budget problems are coming from,” thesenator said.

Hyde-Smith touted the benefits of Judge Keith Starrett’s drugcourt as a way for reducing corrections and costs of housingprisoners. The senator’s bill to make the program statewide died incommittee this year.

“If we could get corrections under control, we wouldn’t have anyeducation funding problems,” Hyde-Smith said.

The corrections talk led to a question about what the state isdoing regarding inmates’ working to generate revenue.

“Not enough,” Barnett said emphatically.

Barnett said he supports prison industries, which does some bookprinting and binding and other activities. He also mentioned apending bill to make inmates produce the state’s licenseplates.

“I say a prisoner who works every day is going to stay out oftrouble a lot more than an inmate who sits up and watches TV allday,” Barnett said.

Other questions, though, continued to bring up educationissues.

Regarding 6 percent pay raises for teachers, Posey said the planwill cost about $58 million this year and about twice that nextyear.

“That money is still in place,” Posey said.

On the topic of work force training, Posey said communitycolleges were not alone in seeing funding reductions.

“We’re not trying to single any one group of education out,” thesenator said.

In commenting about millions going for roads to casinos,Hyde-Smith addressed a misconception about gaming funds andeducation. She said less than 5 percent of the state’s budget comesfrom gaming.

“Gaming may have been passed in the name of education, but it’ssure not going there directly,” Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith and others expressed concerns about the possibilityof teacher layoffs next year. Holloway said he never thought he’dsee the day when that kind of thing would be considered.

“We’re doing everything we can possibly do to not make thathappen,” Hyde-Smith said.