- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges are seeking more money even as lawmakers warn that the passage of a voter initiative to increase funding for K-12 schools will mean budget cuts.

The plans of the colleges and universities were often overshadowed in state budget hearings Tuesday by Republican lawmakers’ opposition to Initiative 42. The voter-proposed measure could create court oversight over Mississippi’s K-12 spending adequacy, checking lawmakers’ power to decide how much or little money to give to public schools.

The showdown has been brewing since House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson told agencies to prepare for 7.8 percent budget cuts during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“A funding reduction of that magnitude would undo much of that progress,” Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum told lawmakers. “It would be a body blow to our university, a dispiriting message to both faculty and staff who work so hard to help our state.”

Higher Education Commissioner Glenn Boyce said he’s not officially endorsing or opposing 42, but he told House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, that universities are “educating” their employees, students and alumni about possible negatives. He said a 7.8 percent cut could spark more than 700 layoffs at universities statewide.

Jonathan Compretta and Michael Rejebian, who manage the campaign for support group 42 For Better Schools, said lawmakers were trying to threaten agency heads.

“This is just inept politics based on the equation that if you strong-arm agency heads into believing they won’t be funded, you can use them as a mouthpiece to defeat supporters of public education,” the two said in a statement.

As is typical, both universities and community colleges have their own requests that will compete for the state’s cash and borrowing capacity as lawmakers write the budget for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1. Typically, no agency gets everything it requests.

Mississippi’s eight public universities asked for an additional $67.6 million in 2017, which would be an 8 percent increasing in funding. That would include $50 million for salary increases, which Boyce said would be enough to raise salaries of university faculty by 3 percent on average. Lawmakers gave universities enough money last year to raise salaries 2.3 percent.

On salaries, Gunn warned that “if 42 passes, that’s probably not going to happen. Does your faculty understand that?”

The universities are also requesting $14.2 million more to fund financial aid programs which also benefit students at community colleges and private institutions, as well as $2.8 million more in maintenance money.

Boyce also said universities will run $5.5 million short of what’s needed for financial aid in the current year, saying aid will be cut in the spring if lawmakers don’t act quickly to fill the deficit.

Mississippi’s 15 community colleges requested an $83 million, which would be a 31 percent increase. The colleges also asked for an additional $20 million to expand education and training for high-school dropouts, and to upgrade other career/technical programs

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

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