Area lawmakers split on school funding bill vote

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

While all three area representatives were in favor of fullyfunding education in the state, they were not all in agreement onHouse Bill 513 that passed the House last week.

“This is not a good bill,” said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie,R-Brookhaven, of the bill to fully fund the Mississippi AdequateEducation Program. “I don’t think it will get out of theSenate.”

Currie, who voted against the bill, said she was in favor offunding all the needs originally requested by MAEP officials. Shesupported the full funding of MAEP, including a 3 percent teacherpay raise and a $500 per year pay increase to veteran teacherassistants.

However, Currie said the bill’s “hold harmless” provision, whichagrees not to cut the budget of school districts that haveexperienced a decrease in student population until next year,caused an unnecessary increase of $60 million in the educationbudget.

“Everything else is fine – we planned for all those items in thebudget, and we have the money for it,” Currie said. “I was in favorof all the other stipulations in the bill, but we don’t have anextra $60 million. We’re already searching for $87 million forMedicaid. It would have been irresponsible to vote for thatbill.”

Currie said it was a “no brainer” for her to vote against thebill, considering that her home school districts of Brookhaven andLincoln County, which have experienced no decrease in studentenrollment, will “not see a dime” of the $60 million.

The governor is also not happy with the passing of House bill513.

“We met with the Gov. Barbour at 8:30 the next morning, and hesaid if it lands on his desk as it is, he’ll veto it,” Currie said.”We just don’t have an extra $60 million. He was upset with some ofthe Republicans for supporting the bill. Are we for fully fundingeducation? Yes. But if you really look at 513 closely, it was not agood bill.”

Currie was also displeased with the way the bill waspresented.

“We came in the House Thursday afternoon and they sprung thisbill on us,” she said. “It’s the same old tactic – surprising uswith a bill that no one has had time to read. Usually, we don’tvote on those big items until March.”

The timing was not an issue for other area representatives, andthe $60 million increase Currie stood against was invisible intheir eyes.

“As far as I know, there wasn’t any extra money,” said District91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello. “Extra funding is certainly apoint of view thing. If anyone talks about extra funding, ask themwhat happened to the funding MAEP was supposed to get in previousyears, such as the high school building program that was supposedto be funded every year and has not been done.”

Evans said that even though MAEP has been fully funded for 2008,it is still “way behind” in money that was supposed to haveappropriated in previous years. He will be wary of any deductionsfrom House Bill 513 once it returns from the Senate.

“I’ve already heard that the Senate has looked at it and saidthey’re certainly going to make some changes,” Evans said. “Ibelieve they will make substantial changes, take significant moneyout. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to vote for anythingthat comes out of conference committee that doesn’t fully fundeverything in MAEP.”

The timing of the bill’s presentation was also not an issue forEvans. He said there was discussion on the House floor about fullyfunding MAEP before other funding issues were considered, but MAEPwas the most important issue for him.

“Most of the comments I heard were about waiting on educationand passing economic incentives to bring jobs to the state,” Evanssaid. “But there were many of us that thought the first thing youhave to do in order to talk about enhancing the economy inMississippi is make sure we have a school system that provides aneducated work force.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, did recognize theextra money that Currie voted against, and was in favor of itsallocation.

“Those additional monies went above MAEP, but even with that, itstill didn’t really fully fund education,” he said. “Fully fundingMAEP is not fully funding the education system in the state. Somepeople want to use MAEP as a litmus test to decide whether we fullyfund education or not. That’s not so.”

On the issue of timing, the early introduction of House bill 513was exactly what Moak wanted to see.

“I don’t think it was too early,” he said. “I believe ineducation, and I’m going to prioritize that. The state governmentshould fund the essential needs of government, and education is oneof those needs. You have to fund the essential needs and let theother programs fight over the rest.”

Despite some division in the House over the bill, Moak pointedto the 95 to 26 vote as an indicator of bipartisanship andcooperation.

“If you look at the vote, it doesn’t reflect the 62 to 60 marginthat occurred in the speaker of the House race,” he said. “Only 26people voted against the bill. It does not reflect a divided House.It reflects the philosophy of government rather thanpartisanship.”