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Legislators content with ed. budget

Local legislators agreed school district administrators mayfinally begin cautiously crafting more detailed budgets for thecoming school year after House and Senate negotiators on Fridayreached a compromise on education funding for fiscal year 2010.

Negotiators set education funding levels for thestill-developing state budget at $2.6 billion, approximately halfof Mississippi’s annual $5 billion budget. In the agreement, theMississippi Adequate Education Program – a complex formula throughwhich school districts receive the majority of state money – willbe fully funded, and money will be set aside to pay annual salarysupplements of $6,000 for national board certified teachers.

School administrators across the state have made only a fewpermanent decisions for the fiscal year beginning July 1, holdingoff on replacing retired and moving teachers and funding accessoryprograms for fear that education funding would not cover plannedexpenditures. Even though the full House and Senate could reject acompleted budget when they return to a special session, locallegislators say full funding for education will be a part of anycompromise, and was never intended for reductions.

“That was pretty much a commitment early on by both chambers,the lieutenant governor and the governor’s office,” said District39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven. “Education, to me, wasdecided early on. I don’t think education was a big arguingpoint.”

Hyde-Smith said the $6,000 supplement for NBC teachers was neverin doubt, but many teachers around the state were alarmed whene-mails to the contrary began to circulate earlier this spring.Instead of cuts, Hyde-Smith pointed out the agreed-upon educationfunding levels are actually an increase over current levels.

“It’s a slight increase… but the good thing is there’s nodecrease,” she said. “In this budget year, I am very pleased withwhat we have.”

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, cautioned thatschools should take advantage of the high funding levels andprepare for next year, when state revenues are predicted to be evenlower.

“I think districts should put some money aside for next year,because we never know where the next funding is gonna come from,”she said. “We only get one stimulus package. I hope economic timeschange, but we don’t know.”

Currie said she hopes the high funding level will prevent schooladministrators from seeking an increase in millage rates thisyear.

“I think it would be the wrong thing during these economic timesto add anything else onto the taxpayers of Lincoln County,” shesaid. “You don’t fix an economic crisis by raising taxes.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, agreed thateducation funding was pretty much a given for the Legislature thisyear, but further budget battles lie ahead. He said one of the mostintense of those battles, however – a proposed hospital tax to helppay a $90 million shortfall in Medicaid – may be close to beingresolved.

“When I left on Friday, the House was at $57 (million) and theSenate was at $60 (million),” Moak said. “The question is whetherwe need that other $30 (million) or not. We have agreed to takemoney out of the rainy day fund – not all, but some… and we’regoing to get additional money from several places.”

Moak pointed to last week’s $40 million settlement fromMicrosoft as a bonus source of one-time funding, and pointed toongoing discussions of further increasing state tobacco taxes asanother means of revenue. He said non-participating tobaccocompanies – those that make cheaper cigarettes, like Basics orDorals – could be hit with a tax increase of around 20 cents perpack.

“A 20-cent tax could generate an additional $10 or $12 million,”Moak said.

Mississippi’s 18-cent excise tax on premium brand cigarettes wasraised by 50 cents earlier this session. Moak said placingadditional taxes on smokeless tobacco is also an option.