After months of speculation about an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula and a push by leadership to move quickly on new legislation, lawmakers went home Wednesday without seeing a single education funding bill.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith said he was disappointed a revision of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program did not come to fruition in the regular session.
“I think if we can show him (Gov. Phil Bryant) some more unity, I think he would want to do something on redefining educational funding – not the formula, but the method,” Smith said.
Smith, who has been in the Legislature for 26 years, said disagreements between the House and the Senate have happened before.
“It’s a lot like a marriage. We’re estranged right now,” he said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read said he was not sure what the latest developments in the House and Senate meant for education funding.
“I might be overstepping my boundaries here, but since we’ve adopted what we have (for education funding for Fiscal Year 2018) that’s what’s going to have to work then we’ll be working during the summer and next year be looking at a new system,” Read said.
Read said he could not comment on whether there was a consensus between the House and the Senate regarding a new formula or funding legislation.
“I chair appropriations, but I only chair it with what I can get my hands on,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that House and Senate leaders “continue to have conversations” about a new formula, but the timing for the rewrite after the missed February deadline “became a little less sensitive.”
Reeves stuck to the session’s usual talking points on the matter, and he could not estimate when the formula would be ready for rank-and-file members or the public to view.
“I believe there’s still commitment on part of members of the House and Seante to continue to have the conversation,” Reeves said. “I would think we’re very close to being able to come to an agreement. But again, whether or not that’s in the call for a special session, only the governor can make that decision.”
House education chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said he has “no idea” when a special session would be called, but will revisit the issue of a new funding model in a few weeks as he continues to recover from a recent heart surgery.
“We don’t feel the rushed feeling to actually have something before April 1,” Moore said, referencing the legislative deadline.
“So this is going to give us extra time to look and make sure … the new funding apparatus that we come up with will actually do what we want it to do,” Moore said. “The whole point of even looking is to make sure that we have as many dollars as possible going in to the classrooms and supporting the teachers.”
Despite the lack of a funding formula, Moore said he considers the session “a major success for the education committees and for the children of the state of Mississippi.”
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, said a new formula was one of the things he would have liked to have seen addressed during the session.
“I am very interested in seeing that we pass the revised formula and that we put in place a student based formula,” Gipson said. “I fully expect there will be a session to address that, we just didn’t have time this session.”
Gipson, the House Judiciary B chairman, said the session produced results for the issue of public safety. He highlighted the “Back the Badge” bill signed into law last week, which passed out of his committee. The bill essentially doubles the penalty for crimes committed against law enforcement officers, first responders, and emergency medical personnel.
The Governor also signed anti-sanctuary cities legislation this session, which Gipson said is “obviously a major issue nationwide and here we’ve dealt with that.”
Reeves said he and his staff focused on education bills this session, including: $20 million in funding for a performance-based school program, expansion of scholarships for students with dyslexia, a newfound focus on teaching cursive writing in schools, and a bill that sets aside private funds in a state account that will assist students with disabilities.
Public safety was another theme Reeves mentioned: Funding for a state trooper school, “Back the Badge” legislation which imposes stricter penalties on crimes against law enforcement officials, and the banning of “sanctuary cities.”
Reeves sternly dismissed media reports that the three appropriations bills were stalled after an impasse between House and Senate leaders.
“All three of these budget bills had signed conference reports and were signed by three conferees in House and Senate,” Reeves said. “On all three of those, we actually did not know there was an issue in the House. We took all three of those bills up and passed them on the Senate floor, and the House chose to recommit two of them and then change one with a rule that we don’t have.”
In a session where almost every state agency’s budget was slashed, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that they did the best with what they had.
Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said he felt the parties worked together better than in the previous session, and “in a tough budget year we did the best with what we could do.”
Johnson said he was pleased with the House’s efforts on transportation funding – earlier this week, the House sent two Mississippi Department of Transportation budget bills back to the Senate for further negotiation. The Senate did not take up the bills and they died on the calendar, likely forcing a special session on that area of government funding.
“The House actually found a way to do some funding, do something to fix our roads and bridges,” Johnson said. He was disappointed the Legislature could not find a way to provide additional funding for the state’s roads, “but with the prospect of coming back for a special session, I think we’ll get some things done.”
Johnson, a former House Transportation Committee chairman, said he was also displeased that the House bond bill that would have provided millions for construction projects at colleges, community colleges and roads and bridges died over the weekend.
“Our universities need more help so I was disappointed about that.”
Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, filed multiple bills to establish a state lottery during the session — all died.
“I regret that it wasn’t passed, and I also regret that it seemed only to become a good idea when we were low in cash,” Clarke said.
As for the budget, she would have like to see the Legislature figure out how to add funds to the budget “in places that we have not looked.”
Funding for the state Attorney General’s office also got snagged in a deadline this week and will need to be resolved before the July 1 beginning of the next fiscal year.
As is tradition, when a member retires, the House passed a resolution honoring Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, who will join the Workers Compensation Commission.
Formby talked about the milestones that marked his 25 years in the Legislature.
“Over the years, you and I have fought on the opposite sides of an issue then stood together at a family wedding. You and I have been angry at each other over a remark that you made or I made at the podium and then we knelt together for prayer for a fellow member or a former member of this body. You and I have raised a fist at each other over opposition of a bill and then we held hands in prayer at a loved one’s bedside,” Formby said.
He added: “I debated hundred of bills on dozens of different subjects—and you know what I’ve learned? I learned that you and I are way more alike than we are different.”