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Lawmakers: Arts school will remain open

Lincoln County lawmakers offered reassuring words today aboutthe future of the Mississippi School of the Arts, although theysaid a funding level has not been determined.

Speaking at this morning’s Brookhaven-Lincoln County of CommerceLegislative Breakfast, District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith citedseveral legislative options regarding MSA. Among them werelegislation to allow MSA and the Mississippi School of Math andScience in Columbus to operate as charter schools, which wouldallow them to apply for federal education grants and other funds,and another proposal to have University of Southern Mississippi tooversee MSA.

“The good news about that is the arts school will be funded thisyear,” Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith said lawmakers had not set a direction regardingfunding. However, she said everything related to the arts schoolthis year had been positive.

“I feel very good about that,” the senator said.

District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett echoed comments from stateSuperintendent of Education Dr. Henry Johnson that the arts schoolwill not close.

“There’s a great deal of support from all over the state,”Barnett said, adding that MSA and MSMS go hand in hand.

Barnett said a total of $31 million in state and local funds hadbeen put into MSA. He also credited the previous cityadministration with putting in a reverter whereby the city wouldget the land and buildings if the arts school ceasesoperations.

“I think that was good thinking,” Barnett said.

The arts school was among a variety of questions posed tolawmakers during the event. From education to Medicaid, funding wasa central theme.

“A lot of folks have not realized we’re in deep, deep trouble asfar as money goes,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak.

Moak advocated funding basic needs such as health care,education and law enforcement first. Other agencies and servicescould then fight over the remaining funds.

Several questions this morning focused on gaming-related issues,such as a lottery.

Moak, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, said his panel haslooked at several items this year. However, it may be a “mootissue” after the bill was not brought out of committee.

“There wasn’t enough support on the House floor to get thatdone,” Moak said.

Barnett and Hyde-Smith voiced opposition to a lottery. Thesenator touted the need for good government management and fiscalresponsibility rather than a lottery.

“I think we have to draw the line somewhere,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

With tickets available statewide in convenience stores and otherlocations, Barnett opposed a lottery because he said it would makegambling more readily accessible to those who can ill afford togamble. Also, unlike casino gambling, Moak said lottery is morecompulsive and regressive.

Moak mentioned an amendment that he and Barnett supported toallow the Gaming Commission to develop rules for race book, or offtrack betting. The amendment passed but the bill it was attached tofailed, the representative said.

With a $13 billion nationwide industry, Moak quoted MississippiDevelopment Authority estimates that the race book activities couldbring in $40 million a year for the state.

Moak, though, also cited more conservative estimates of $3 to$13 million a year. He said the amendment called for the funds togo to operation of the state’s mental health crisis centers.

Among economic development issues, Moak said the governor’sMomentum Mississippi package failed by one vote in the House Waysand Means Committee. With a three-fifths vote required for passageand concerns about bonding authority given to the governor, Moaksaid the political reality was that the bill likely would not havepassed on the House floor.

Moak said lawmakers have not shunned their economic developmentduties, mentioning support for a steel mill and efforts during lastyear’s special session.

“I don’t see Momentum Mississippi getting done in the House, asit is, as it stands on its own legs,” Moak said.

A looming Medicaid deficit is occupying much of lawmakers’attention. Moak said the program is scheduled to run out of moneyFriday.

“It’s time to take a stand, to do something,” Moak said.

Lawmakers were united in their desire to eliminate abuse of thesystem. Several cited there were no prosecutions of Medicaid abuselast year by the attorney general’s office.

“Until we go after that abuse, I’m not for raising any taxes,”said Hyde-Smith, although she added a tax increase may be necessaryto get out of the $268 million deficit crisis.

House and Senate members have been divided over how to addressthe deficit. House members have passed a variety of service cuts,fee increases and a cigarette tax hike while the Senate hassupported taking funds from tobacco trust fund.

Moak said he could support taking money from the trust fund aslong as it is paid back by diverting part of the revenue from acigarette tax increase. He said the next five to seven days will becrucial and could determine whether the legislative session willhave to be extended.

“Tough votes need to be taken, and they need to be taken prettyquick,” Moak said.