Wednesday, February 23, 2011
A showdown may be gearing up between the Mississippi House of Representatives and Gov. Haley Barbour on the use of $65 million in federal funds for public education this year.
Last week, the House passed HB 1494, which does not cut the state's Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding by $65 million, but instead provides funding identical to funding levels for the program last year. The bill provides $1.8 billion to MAEP, the formula for directing state funds to low-income school districts to cover shortfalls in local taxes. The state Senate, however, largely under the sway of Gov. Haley Barbour, may not agree with the House's finance plan for schools.
This past August the federal government enacted the federal Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act, which is designed to help schools counter the continuing national recession by appropriating money to allow districts to rehire teachers or prevent teacher layoffs. Barbour argued in a letter to legislative leaders early this month that by refusing to balance the $65 million in federal funds with $65 million in cuts, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee essentially "increases total funds to K-12 by $65 million and increases state spending by $65 million."
House Speaker Bill McCoy wrote a letter to Barbour in response to the governor's Feb. 3 letter.
"These ‘second stimulus funds' are in no way similar to (stimulus) funds you cite in your memorandum and which the state received earlier. They are awarded to the school districts, not the state. The state has no control over when or how they are spent," McCoy stated.
Some House Republicans are already in line with Barbour's opinion on the matter, even though the federal government appears specific about restrictions on using the funds to supplant state funding.
Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said the House and Senate have yet to agree on the $65 million, which he said may or may not help fund MAEP. Only 14 representatives voted against the bill, and all were Republican.
A Place for Civil Rights
Another funding measure sure to herald a battle of a different sort allots $55 million in state funding for construction of a national civil-rights museum and a museum of Mississippi history in downtown Jackson.
House Bill 1463, which the House recently sent to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration, is the latest volley in a five-year endeavor by Barbour and advocates to build a civil-rights museum in the state. Barbour appointed a commission that decided in 2008 to build the civil-rights museum near the Tougaloo College campus, but the college has yet to turn earth on the facility.
Barbour called for re-igniting the effort to build the museum in January, soon after critics derided him for describing the white separatist Citizens Council merely as an "organization of town leaders" who opposed the KKK, and described 1960s civil-rights problems in Yazoo as not "being that bad."
Tempers flared between Jackson leaders and the commission in 2008 when the commission chose Tougaloo, and legislators in the House were still fighting over the prospective museum's location last week. Greenwood Democrat Rep. Willie Perkins, who is a Tougaloo graduate, offered an amendment to the bill that would put the project back at Tougaloo, but Ways and Means Committee members voted down Perkins' amendment. Another failed amendment, submitted by Rep. Jim Evans, D-Jackson, would have placed the museum closer to the Farish Street Entertainment District, at Freelon's Restaurant on Mill Street, between Oakley and Hamilton streets.
Looking Out for Lassie
Cruelty to cats and dogs would become a felony under Senate Bill 2821 if it survives a House Judiciary B vote in the next few days. The House Agriculture Committee voted last week to approve the bill, which makes "aggravated cruelty to a dog or cat" a felony on the second offense.
The Agriculture Committee has traditionally been the killing field for animal-cruelty legislation, in part because of opposition from farmers and farmers' advocates.
The intent of the bill, however, "is to provide only for the protection of domesticated dogs and cats…"
"We have worked diligently toward a solution to this problem. We feel the legislation that passed the House Agriculture Committee has enough protections for agriculture and landowners," Farm Bureau President Randy Knight said in a statement.
The bill provides for two kinds of animal-cruelty crimes. The first, "simple cruelty to a dog or cat," a misdemeanor, would apply to anyone who wounds, poisons or neglects a pet. The aggravated-cruelty crime would apply to more severe acts, like torturing or burning a dog or cat. For the first aggravated-cruelty offense, the bill stipulates a maximum punishment of a $2,500 fine and a six-month prison sentence. With a second offense, aggravated cruelty would qualify as a felony and carry a maximum punishment of a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.
The bill also allows judges to order a psychiatric evaluation and counseling for aggravated-cruelty offenders upon conviction.
Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, the bill's original sponsor, said last week that the Senate would likely concur with the House on the bill's current form to avoid the extra hurdle of having to bang out the bill in conference.