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Lawmakers predict tough legislative session ahead

Area lawmakers agree Hurricane Katrina-related issues willdominate the next Legislaive session when it convenes Tuesday, butthey add many other issues will also demand attention.

“We will take care of the business of the state, but most ofthat is the recovery from Katrina,” said District 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith. “We’re all in Katrinaville. Every single one ofus.”

The federal government has appropriated billions to hurricanerecovery efforts and much of the session will be spent indetermining how those Mississippi funds are divided among themunicipalities, counties and state programs involved in recoveryefforts, area legislators said.

Further complicating those decisions are factors that are hardto calculate but are all too tangible – the shifting of populationfrom the coast to inland areas and how that will affect area taxbases, determining the number of people who will return to thecoast, coastal residents still living in tents and, to a lesserextent, temporary housing across the state.

“All of those things are issues that simply surround the Katrinaissue and must be looked at,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak.

District 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett agreed.

“It’s going to be a tough session,” he said. “If ever there wasa time in my life that Mississippi would have to live on thefederal government, that time is now. There is no tax base on thecoast.”

Moak said the destruction on the coast affects far more thancoastal counties and municipalities, and the ripple effect washesinto every area of state government.

“This hurricane has not only changed people’s lives, but alsothe legislative budget process,” he said. “There are a lot ofunknowns and they have to be budgeted for.”

The rebuilding of coastal schools and the repair of inlandschools devastated by the storm have to be considered in theeducation budget, Hyde-Smith said.

“Obviously, our budget can’t absorb rebuilding 16 schools,” shesaid. “We’ll need federal funding, and to get that you have to bevery specific in your requests.”

Education is also enwrapped in a controversial debate notrelated to Katrina.

Prior to the storm’s arrival, legislators had agreed toreevaluate the formula used in the Mississippi Adequate EducationProgram, which is designed to ensure equal funding for all schooldistricts based on their population size.

“I think there are a few problems that do need looking at,”Hyde-Smith said, citing advantages in the formula for morepopulated areas. “(A new formula) will be more fair to alldistricts instead of huge advantages for some.”

Moak agreed, adding that he expected any changes in the formulato benefit local districts because of southwest Mississippi’s smallbut growing student population. One area that needs much help isFranklin County, he said, adding that more than 50 percent of thatcounty’s land mass belongs to the federal forest service.

“They’re not able to develop a strong tax base,” he said.

Moak said he expects a three-year battle to fund the MississippiSchool of the Arts is over.

“I think it has stabilized,” he said. “I’m not looking at thatto heat up. I think the battle was getting it funded lastyear.”

Hyde-Smith said she believes public awareness of the school andits proven track record of success have resolved that controversy.She doesn’t expect any difficulties in funding the school duringthe session.

She does expect a major legislative fight over the Wellspringproject. It involves three northern Mississippi counties asking forstate bond revenue to help with a purchase of industrial land,although no business or industry has committed to locatingthere.

Barnett and Hyde-Smith have said they wouldn’t support theproject unless there is an industry commitment first.

“I’ll have economic development interests in our own area,”Hyde-Smith said. “I think when a commitment comes first, I would bemore willing to look at projects such as this. The idea of build itand they will come is not being realistic because we would all liketo build under those conditions. That’s not possible with ourlimited state funds.”

Moak said he would be willing to support the project, but mustbe shown how it would benefit southwest Mississippi.

“You can’t fault anyone for trying to improve their situation,and that’s what they are trying to do,” he said. “I’m just notregional on these issues. I think you have to think statewide. Weget our tax dollars from the state and we have to have itmoving.”

Moak said he would also like to support efforts in this regionto entice some industries that may not be relocating to the coastfollowing the storm to locate here.