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Musgrove: Passing burden of revenue shortfalls

By Staff
Feb. 7, 2001
As the saying goes in Mississippi state government: "A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about some real money."
The current revenue shortfall in state government is approximately $140 million roughly the same amount as Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has ordered in budget cuts since during the current fiscal year.
Musgrove ordered $50 million in budget cuts he called them "budget reserves" back in October 2000, but exempted the state's public schools, higher education and community colleges and the Department of Public Safety.
Budgets slashed
Last week, he ordered an additional $93.8 million in cuts that included those previously-exempt agencies and missions.
Last week's cuts saw $39.8 million trimmed from the budgets of the state's public schools, $27.8 million cut from higher education and $7.2 million from community colleges. Musgrove also cut $2.5 million from the Department of Public Safety.
Many lawmakers and some of Musgrove's own financial analysts believe the state's budget woes will get worse before they get better, with predictions that the current fiscal year revenue shortfall could swell from the current $140 million to between $200-$250 million. Should those numbers actually be posted, additional budget cuts will be necessary.
The robbing of Peter to pay Paul has already begun in the Legislature.
State Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, orchestrated a move to shore up the Minimum Foundation Program funding for the state's public school by diverting money from the Education Trust Fund state oil and gas severance fund taxes from the intended trust fund over the next five years to operating funds.
Drawing fire
That move has been hailed by public school administrators and by some high-ranking officials in the State Department of Education, but has drawn fire from those responsible for establishing the Educational Trust Fund back in the 1980s.
Musgrove has already raided the state's so-called "Rainy Day Fund" to the tune of $50 million and can't go back to that well without substantial legislative support. Even at that, the "Rainy Day Fund" would only marginally cover the current year revenue shortfall and could certainly not be counted upon as a source of significant revenue should the state revenue shortfall carry over into the next fiscal year  as most economists predict that it will.
The state Senate last week also repealed a law that transferred half of any budget surplus into the Educational Enhancement Fund  created in 1992 with a one-cent sales tax hike and 50 percent of any budget surplus. Those funds were intended for us as surplus funds for the public schools to use for textbook purchases, instructional materials, school board training and other purposes.
Education lawsuit
On other economic fronts, the state is close to using $573 million of its existing bonding authority to craft a settlement to the 25-year-old Ayers higher education lawsuit.
For state lawmakers, it's a Gordian Knot. The state is having to cut meat and bone from the current operating budget, ignore calls for any increase in
future funding no matter how critical the state agency involved and to do so at a time when the necessary settlement of Ayers and the emotions of the politics of trying to settle the question of whether or not Mississippi chooses to be the last state in the union that incorporates the Confederate Battle Flag into the design of our state flag remain on the table.
As previously observed: "A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about some real money."
In the midst of this most austere of times in state government in more than 25 years, Musgrove continues to beat the drum for the teacher pay package enacted last year  urging state lawmakers not only to fund this year's segment of the teacher pay hike but to remove the five-percent revenue growth trigger from the teacher pay legislation.
Predictably, the state's teacher unions are with Musgrove in that fight, but lawmakers  particularly state senators say the five percent growth trigger isn't going away and that it provides a necessary safety net should state revenue continues to languish behind projections.
The bottom line for now is that Mississippi public school teachers will get their pay raises this year no matter if the worst revenue shortfall projections come true. There is consensus between Musgrove and the Legislature on that question.
Deaf ears
But the call of Musgrove and the teacher unions for elimination of the five percent has and will continue to fall on deaf ears.
The overall state budget picture begs the question of just how long this budget crisis can continue before the taxpayers are called upon to stop the bleeding through local tax hikes. It's clear at this point that the intent of the Legislature and Musgrove is to pass the burden of the revenue shortfalls back down the line from the state level to the local level.
In that manner, the governor and the Legislature can avoid offending the teacher unions by making good on the pay raises while forcing local school
boards to deal with the shortage of funds for energy bill increases, books, buses and workbooks.
No teachers in America deserve pay hikes more than our Mississippi teachers.
But the five percent revenue trigger is a necessary safety valve that most of those same teachers use in their family budgets at home, holding to the theory that one can only buy those things that one can afford.
Musgrove and some in the media have questioned the "commitment" to a teacher pay raise of the Legislature and others who support the five-percent trigger.
But there is a growing number of Mississippi taxpayers who have seen too many promises broken in terms of sales tax hike set asides for education, legalization of liquor for education, etc., over the years to buy into the "commitment" argument.
Minimum Foundation Program funding was a "commitment", as was Adequate Education Funding, as was the Education Enhancement Fund, etc., etc., etc. Those "commitments" have been ignored, forgotten, under-funded and made political footballs over the years while taxes have continued to increase at all levels.
And older taxpayers will tell you in a heartbeat that if every tax dollar collected in Mississippi under the guise of improving public education had been spent for that purpose, we'd have the best public school system in America.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.

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