Hopson praised for breaking budget logjam

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 5, 2010

State Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg, was being credited today with breaking a partisan impasse that led to a Thursday vote to restore $45 million to public schools’ funding formula in the state’s tight budget.

Hopson, in his first term, sponsored a substitute to Senate Bill 2688 with nine fellow senators — all Democrats — to put the funds back into education. The plan would take $50 million more from the state Health Care Trust Fund, which has a balance of more than $200 million. After the $45 million goes to schools, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour could use $5 million to restore a small portion of the cuts he has made to other state programs.

The 32-15 vote included eight Republicans who joined Hopson in splitting from the party leadership to side with Democrats trying to pump money back into elementary and secondary schools for the balance of this school year.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

“My point was to put the bulk of the money back into primary education,” Hopson said when reached this morning. “We realize other agencies have taken cuts, but the bulk of the cuts should go back to K-12.”

In her e-mail to members of the Parents Campaign, an advocacy group for public education, director Nancy Loome credits Hopson with the breakthrough.

The bill was held with the possibility of more Senate debate and Loome called on Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, not to block the measure.

Nunnelee, among the 15 who voted against the plan, said lawmakers shouldn’t deplete the state’s financial reserves. Nunnelee said people who want to spend millions from the state’s two main reserves, rainy day fund and the health care trust, are hoping the economy will recover soon, but that might not happen.

“While I share their hope, I refuse to base budget decisions for the state based strictly on their hope,” Nunnelee said.

If Hopson’s measure is voted to final passage, it would then move to the House. The Senate’s restoration of funds would be about one-fourth of the $194.6 million Barbour has cut from the schools.

Members of the Democratic-controlled House have voted to take $50 million from the health care trust fund and $50 million from the state’s rainy day fund to restore nearly one-fourth of the cuts Barbour has made. Most state programs have lost around 8 percent of their money.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said school administrators are trying to make difficult decisions about how to save money, and many districts don’t have financial reserves to replace the state money they’re losing.

“If we’re going to do something to restore funding, we need to do it now and not a month from now,” Tollison said.

State revenues have fallen short of expectation for 17 consecutive months because of the weak economy. Barbour has cut $437 million from what started as a nearly $6 billion state budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Barbour earlier said he would announce another round of budget cuts today, but this morning canceled the news conference. His office said the governor “continues to analyze budget options.”

The governor has suggested a go-slow approach to state reserves, taking no more than a third of the money per year due to expectations the state’s income will continue to fall.

The rainy day fund is a mandatory budget cushion created at the request of former Gov. Kirk Fordice who suggested that lawmakers set aside a portion of each year’s income estimate.

The health care trust was created with funds from former Attorney General Mike Moore’s multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies. The $200 million is what lawmakers have not already allocated from payments that started in 1997. The fund receives slightly more than $100 million per year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com