- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The two systems that run Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges each want lawmakers to increase their budgets by more than $75 million, arguing more state spending on higher education will help residents earn higher incomes and bolster the future of the state.

State agencies are presenting requests to the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee this week, setting the stage for negotiations that won’t intensify until the 2015 Legislature begins. The lawmakers will write a budget for the fiscal year that begins next July.

Looming over both presentations, though, were legal efforts to force the Legislature to meet its funding promises to K-12 education. Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked officials from both higher education systems how they would cope if lawmakers took $312 million from their budgets to fully fund the K-12 formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Both said cuts to shift money to MAEP would be catastrophic.

“Obviously that would have a devastating effect,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board.

“I can’t even answer that,” said Higher Education Chancellor Hank Bounds. “Tuition won’t do it. Nothing would do it.”

The eight public universities, which received a $750 million appropriation this year asked for an additional $76.5 million. Of that amount, $7.6 million is needed to cover shortfalls next year in financial aid programs lawmakers have mandated, Bounds said. Another $17 million would go to the University of Mississippi Medical Center

Bounds argues Mississippi must keep investing in higher education if it wants to stop falling behind in the share of its residents who are college educated. College Board projections show Mississippi would have to almost quadruple the number of degrees awarded if it wanted to equal the national average of people with bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

“We’re 20 years behind in educational attainment,” Bounds said. “We are making progress, but we’re losing ground because others are moving ahead faster than we are.”

The state’s 15 community colleges asked for a total increase of $79.1 million over this year’s appropriation of $251.7 million. Clark said the money would allow the independently governed colleges to expand workforce training and improve faculty salaries.

In 2007, the Legislature passed legislation requiring that it fund the colleges at a point halfway between K-12 and universities, on a per student basis. To do so, lawmakers would have to raise per-student funding from $3,432 per year to $5,562, costing $140 million. Clark asked for half that amount in the 2016 budget.

“Midlevel funding has exactly the same legal status as MAEP,” Clark said. “We’re asking you to move the needle on that and to do it this year.”

Another $9 million would be specifically earmarked for a dropout recovery initiative, to help high school dropouts earn a high school equivalency diploma and then learn job skills.

“There are tens of thousands of disenfranchised citizens of Mississippi that can become part of the solution where the workforce development is concerned if we can only deliver some contemporary job skills to them,” said Scott Elliott, president of Meridian Community College.


Follow Jeff Amy at https://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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