This week the Joint Legislative Budget Committee is holding budget hearings where agency heads present information about their needs for the coming year and answer questions from lawmakers. Yesterday, committee members heard from the Department of Revenue, the Division of Medicaid, the Department of Education, and the Department of Mental Health. They will hear from more agencies today. For a budget hearings schedule visit here.
A common thread throughout all of the agency presentations was questioning about budget cuts that would have to be made to services if the legislature was “forced” to fully-fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) as required by law. The MAEP appropriation for the current school year is about $200 million below what the formula prescribes and MAEP has been underfunded by over $1.7 billion since 2008.
It is important to remember that budgeting is about choices and priorities, and as illustrated in last year’s tax cut debates, the amount of revenue collected is itself the result of choices.
Earlier this year, when the state legislature considered large tax cut measures that ranged from $400 million to $1.7 billion benefiting largely corporations and the wealthy, agencies were not asked to list the cuts they would make if the cuts were enacted. Additionally, agencies are not asked to list potential cuts they would make when any of the corporate tax break proposals are considered. For example, the inventory tax break that was passed in 2012 is expected to cost over $120 million in the next year alone.
The director of the Division of Medicaid announced the need for $71 million to cover current year expenses as well as their request for next year’s funding. Medicaid was given slightly less in state funds this year than the previous year even though it was highly likely they would require more funding to finish the year. Lawmakers commented on the large size of the total Medicaid budget (over $6 billion this year), however, three out of four dollars of the Medicaid budget is paid by the federal government.
Department of Education
Representatives from the Department of Education discussed some of their recent successes in early literacy and the impact of preschool grants. Ninety-two percent of third graders were able to move up to the fourth grade after the first year of the “Third Grade Gate” reading test. This does not mean that all 92% were found to be reading at grade level, but that they either met the required minimum score or were able to get an exemption from being held-back. They also presented data showing the challenges that older children in Mississippi schools are still facing, including that only 9% of Mississippi 11th graders who took the ACT were found to be college ready in all four subjects tested. Among other things, this illustrates the impact K-12 school success has on higher education in Mississippi.
Lawmakers highlighted the increased investment in Department of Education programs that are not included in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). While investments in auxiliary education programs are welcome and important, they do not replace the “meat and potatoes” funding provided by the MAEP that provides teacher salaries, textbooks, and other regular school funding needs.
We will cover the remaining budget hearings during the week.