Legislators: Funds for DHS, higher education would affect Adams County

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 4, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A balanced budget that doesn’t hurt funding for such things as welfare programs and higher education is the main thing locals should pray for during the upcoming legislative session.

That is according to members of Adams County’s legislative delegation, who go into regular session Tuesday in Jackson.

Mississippi, like many states, is facing a tough budget year, especially given the nation’s economic downturn.

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And with the major role institutions like Alcorn State University and Copiah-Lincoln Community College play in the local area, higher education funding is the issue to watch, said Sen. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez.

Of all budget areas, &uot;that’s the one that’s in the most trouble,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;We spent a lot of time last year talking about losing doctors &045; but we stand to lose a lot of professors if we don’t do something (about their pay).&uot;

Major improvements are being built at those institutions, including new fine arts and master’s of business administration buildings at Alcorn.

&uot;High goals are being set pursuant to the Ayers decision,&uot; Johnson said, referring to a decision in a long-standing college desegregation case. &uot;And once we get them out, we can’t leave them hanging. Š I don’t think we can increase funding, but we need to maintain it.&uot;

Not only that, but if community colleges and universities did not get the funding they need on the state level, they might have to raise tuition, said Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez.

&uot;That isn’t fair to parents who are sending children to college,&uot; Dearing said. &uot;Higher education always takes a tremendous cut, and it’s so unfair.&uot;

In addition, the Legislature must look at providing more funding for the state Department of Human Services, where understaffing of social workers has made headlines. If that is not done, there could be greater costs later, human and otherwise, Dearing said.

&uot;It’s a question of, pay me now or pay me later,&uot; Dearing said. &uot;We have folks slipping through the cracks.&uot;

Dearing said he also wants to make sure the 1987 highway four-laning program continues to get the funding it needs.

That is especially important so that U.S. 61 from Port Gibson to Adams County and from Woodville to the Louisiana state line can completed as soon as possible, he said.

However, Dearing noted that, while the Legislature is required by the state Constitution to pass a balanced budget, there are many &uot;built-ins&uot; it cannot cut, such as promised pay raises to teachers and state employees.

&uot;We’re so far overextended that some cuts have got to be made,&uot; said Rep. Andrew Ketchings, R-Natchez. &uot;The question is, do we have the people who will step up and do it?

In particular, Ketchings said he is concerned &uot;that last year, we took one-time money and gave pay raises with it. Where’s that going to come from this year?&uot;

In this regular session, he said, &uot;we’ve got some difficult decisions to make.&uot;

Passing sin taxes on such things as cigarettes is probably the most likely source of new revenue, said Rep. Phillip West, D-Natchez.

As he has done in past years, West plans to submit a bill that would allow local governments to hold a referendum on levying a 1-cent sales tax for local projects.

&uot;A local community should have the option to tax itself for projects the citizens feel they need and want,&uot; West said. &uot;At the same time, I think there should be a time limit (on the tax) so that it repeals itself after a certain amount of time.&uot;

Meanwhile, many &045; including Ketchings &045; will be curious to see if legislation is passed to weaken the Legislature’s new tort reform measures.

&uot;I’m curious to see how much of tort reform that the trial lawyers will try to get rolled back,&uot; Ketchings said, although he said such groups might wait until 2004 to take action.