Budget woes take forum center stage

Published 7:34 pm Monday, February 22, 2010

WESSON – Copiah County and area legislators forecast even moredoom and gloom for the state’s budget crisis Monday, batting aroundhundred million-dollar figures that are expected to get worse asthe months pass by.

Speaking at the Wesson Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 legislativebreakfast at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, the fourrepresentatives and lone senator made no attempts to play downMississippi’s funding shortage and promised cuts for the state’sleading departments. The state budget was the first – and basicallyonly – topic in the question-and-answer political forum, andDistrict 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, wasted no time indarkening the mood.

“When we make cuts now, people are very disappointed, but it iswhat it is,” she said. “Right now, in 2010, we’re $450 millionshort. For 2011, we’re $795 million short and in 2012, it’s $1.3billion.”

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With the financial shortcomings confirmed, legislators begananswering submitted questions that sought ways to save money andcorrect government errors. District 92 Rep. Becky Currie,R-Brookhaven, voiced support for saving money by shortening theschool year from 187 to 175 or fewer days, and hinted at areduction in state testing.

“We’ve got 26 days of state testing,” she said. “We’re onlyteaching our children how to take a test – they’re not being taughtthe way we were taught. Sixty-two cents of every dollar goes toeducation, and there has to come a time when we look at the way wedo things.”

District 76 Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, said thecorrection of “social misbehavior” would cut down on the state’s$225 million Medicaid match cost. He said most of the 48,000 birthsin Mississippi last year came to young, unwed mothers, and thatsuch Medicaid recipients are driving up the cost of the programunnecessarily.

“People who really need Medicaid can’t even get on it,” Hollowaysaid.

District 62 Rep. Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, touted schooldistrict consolidation as a cost-saving measure. He said severalstudy committees in the Legislature and governor’s office arelooking into the idea.

“When you look at the number of school districts we have aroundthe state, we have to look and see if there’s any way toconsolidate them,” he said.

Currie shared her belief that Gov. Haley Barbour will call aspecial session later this year to address consolidation since allthe bills dealing with the issue died in the Legislature.

“There’s no reason it can’t be done and pool our resources,” shesaid. “When we talk about this, everyone is so afraid we’re goingto close their school. It has nothing to do with a school.”

The forum was not without its odd moments.

Only Holloway and Weathersby responded to a question asking thefour legislators to explain the state library system and how itshapes their views on budget cuts. They shared their views on thesystem, but never explained how it worked.

Holloway used politically safe terminology to speak againstexcessive budget cuts.

“We need to create some revenue, find new ways to offset thedeficit, something we can do besides keep cutting, keep cutting,keep cutting. I’m not advocating raising taxes,” he said.

Hyde-Smith, meanwhile, grabbed attention when talking aboutHouse Bill 1282, a somewhat controversial bill that would changethe state’s deer hunting season.

“We can murder children and cut budgets and there won’t beanybody in the (senate) gallery. You bring up a coon dog bill, itwill be full on both sides,” she said.

Weathersby said he supported cutting the pay of legislators tosave money, subtly adding that lawmakers haven’t had a pay raisesince 1985.

Currie closed the forum with her own sharp comments, commendingCo-Lin President Dr. Ronnie Nettles for his openness in budgetnegotiations and chiding colleges and universities for making herrequests for financial information a difficult task.

“They are not under the personnel board, they have no oversightand they don’t want you to know. And when we cut their budgets,they can just raise tuition,” she said.