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Lawmakers optimistic on arts school funding

Lincoln County lawmakers offered reassurances of funding for theMississippi School of the Arts and addressed a number of otherissues Monday morning during the chamber’s annual legislativebreakfast.

While hailing passage of an historic education funding billearlier in the session, lawmakers said it did not include a lineitem amount for the arts school.

“I feel good about. I think it’s going to be there,” Dist. 39Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith said about money for the school that isscheduled to open in August.

Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett said a line item in the earliereducation bill directs the Department of Education to fund the artsschool, but did not specify an amount. Lawmakers said the artsschool’s budget request had been trimmed from $3.7 million to $3.1million.

“I’m an optimist, and I feel like the school will be funded,”Barnett said, mentioning conversations with legislativeleadership.

Including land, buildings and other contributions, Barnett saidover $31 million had been put into the school so far.

“I think once we get the first class in and running, it will bein good shape,” Barnett said.

In a related matter, Hyde-Smith said there had to be anamendment added to a bill to allow the arts school to purchasetextbooks so that they would arrive in time for the opening. Shetouted the school as a “crown jewel” for state education.

“It’s just going to be a banner thing for the Department ofEducation,” Hyde-Smith said.

Regarding the overall education funding bill, Hyde-Smith saidshe was thrilled that the $235 million package would allow primaryand secondary school leaders and community colleges “to breath alittle easier” this year. Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak expressedsimilar comments.

“It basically says we’re setting education as a priority in thestate,” Moak said about the bill that diverts 62 percent of thestate’s general fund revenue to education.

A statewide drug court plan and tort reform issues also gotattention during the Monday morning meeting, which was attended byclose to 100 chamber members and guests.

Hyde-Smith’s bill to implement drug court statewide has passedthe Senate and been sent to the House. Drug courts began in JudgeKeith Starrett’s 14th Circuit Court District and have producedgreat results that the senator would like to see happenstatewide.

“That’s going to be a wonderful thing,” she said.

Hyde-Smith said Starrett’s program has had an over 75-percentsuccess rate.

“It’s going to make a huge difference in Mississippi,” thesenator said.

However, to pass the Senate, Hyde-Smith said funding for programimplementation had to be taken out. Starrett’s program has beenfunded by district county support and grants, and Hyde-Smithindicated the possibility of a similar funding mechanism for thestatewide plan.

Hyde-Smith said only four people were to be hired to helpimplement the program. She was hopeful the drug court bill could beamended in the House to restore funding.

“We’re going to have to have some money in it,” the senatorsaid.

Figures were unavailable but lawmakers touted drug court-relatedsavings by not having to incarcerate prisoners. Barnett said arecent total had 19,820 incarcerated by the department ofcorrections.

“It’s not just a matter of saving money…,” Barnett said,mentioning how the program has helped people to recover and haveproductive lives again. “I see no reason it can’t go through.”

In tort reform matters, Moak offered a dim view of chances of a$250,000 Senate-passed cap on pain and suffering bill. He said a$500,000 cap was put on during last year’s special session and hedid not think the bill to lower that would come out of the HouseInsurance and Judiciary committees.

“I just don’t think we’re going to see that,” Moak said.

A bill to start up an insurance risk pool for doctors andhospitals also prompted a few comments Monday.

The pool would provide some coverage for doctors in need ofinsurance in the state. Hyde-Smith said doctors have a private poolbut entry guidelines have become so strict that some doctors whohave never been sued could not join.

The senator said $500,000 has been cited as a start-up cost. Shesaid that would be a one-time expenditure and not a “big black out”as some may fear.

Moak said the question, though, would be whether tax money wouldbe used to fund the pool. He indicated there was uncertaintywhether the money would be in form of a loan or some other way.

“We do risk pools all the time, but we never have subsidizedthem,” Moak said.

In another health-related topic, Barnett said bills to increasethe tax on cigarettes were dead because this was an election yearand lawmakers were not willing to pass any tax increase. Barnett’sbill would have boosted the tax from 18 cents a pack to 50 cents apack while another would have raised the tax by 50 cents apack.

Barnett said Mississippi has the ninth-lowest cigarette tax inthe nation. He said that tax was unlike sales tax on food, clothingand other items.

“That’s a tax you don’t have to pay if you don’t want to,”Barnett said, while also mentioning health benefits of quittingsmoking.