Miss. looks for solutions in tough economic times

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2009 2:51 PM

It's no secret, times are tough all over and Mississippi is no exception. Unemployment is up, tax revenue is down. Some believe the state budget process is broken and education isn't up to par.

So what to do? That's the focus of meetings being held across the state by the Mississippi Economic Council.

Dozens of business leaders and state officials met in Jackson on Wednesday to discuss the economic woes and the desperate need for creative solutions. The group headed south to Brookhaven for another meeting later in the day.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant called for consolidation of some state agencies and proposed linking state funding directly to an agency's performance, highlighting the recent findings of a commission he appointed a year ago. Bryant's Commission for a New Mississippi first released its findings Monday.

Bryant, who as lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, plans to present the proposal to lawmakers when the Legislature convenes in January.

The most recurring theme at Wednesday's meeting, however, was education.

"We can only educate ourselves out of this economy," said Hank Bounds, who recently resigned as state superintendent of education to become the commissioner of Mississippi's college system.

Bounds urged business leaders to support education. Today's students should be considered future employees or consumers. It makes sense for businesses to want their consumers to have the best purchasing power possible, and education is the key, he said.

Still, nobody tried to whitewash the difficult economic situation. State tax collections plummeted in November for the 15th consecutive month, meaning many state agencies almost certainly face budget cuts above the $172 million already announced by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

And with tax revenue drying up fast, there's sure to be a heated budget battle in the upcoming legislative session as lawmakers fight to fund their preferred agencies.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the budget we're going to be dealing with," said Tom Burnham, who replaced Bounds as the state superintendent of education. "It's going to be brutal."

An expensive problem for Mississippi is the state law that allows teachers and others to retire after 25 years, said MEC President Blake Wilson. Many teachers retire as soon as they're eligible and go to work in other states or at private schools.

"We're losing our best teachers in the prime of their career," he said.

A bright spot for education is that enrollment in Mississippi's community colleges is up 13 percent because many people want more education and job training when the economy slugs along, said Eric Clark, executive director for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

But Clark said community colleges receive only a fraction of state education funding despite the massive student population, leaving them struggling to do more with less. Clark said some 250,000 people will seek some kind of education or training in the programs this year.

Mississippians have reason for optimism, said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. Mississippi is working to become the most business friendly state in the nation and revenue from 16th section land has increased $42 million, due mainly to changes in the way the land can be leased.

Hoseman urged school districts to be wise with their money, recalling a time so many years ago when some schools sold their 16th section land to invest in Confederate Railroad bonds.

"Those (bonds) haven't matured yet," he quipped.

The next meetings of the MEC fall tour are: Greenville on Thursday; Hattiesburg on Dec. 8; Pascagoula on Dec. 9; Gulfport on Dec. 10.