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Education Finance Is Top Legislative Issue

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After taking a backseat last year to tax reform and other fiscal topics, education finance has re-emerged as the leading policy issue in many state legislatures, a recent survey has found.

With all but a handful of legislatures scheduled to meet in 1988, fiscal experts in 21 states say school spending is among the most important issues they face, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, which conducted the survey.

Last year, those experts cited the need to balance state budgets as the most critical issue, with the effects of federal tax revision running a close second.

Every year, the ncsl asks the National Association of Legislative Fiscal Officers to list the most important issues they face. This year, experts from 47 states responded to the survey.

Education Focus in South

Analysts in 14 of the responding states listed education spending as the single most important topic to be addressed by their legislatures in 1988. This emphasis was especially strong in reform-minded Southern states. Experts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia all named school spending as their top priority.

Legislative experts in 9 of the 14 states said their attention would be focused on elementary and secondary schools, while analysts in five others said higher education would be their primary concern.

Specific areas of interest varied considerably from state to state, according to the ncsl report. Experts in five states--Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee--said proposals to increase teachers' salaries were currently the most pressing topics in their legislatures.

The salary issue will not be addressed in Arkansas this year, however. The state's legislature is not scheduled to convene until 1989.

Florida analysts, meanwhile, predicted that the need for major investments in school buildings and other capital facilities would dominate their agenda, as a result of the dramatic growth in the state's school-age population.

But a renewed attention to finance may bring bad news to educators in some states, the report warned.

"In several states, ailing budgets could cause cutbacks," it noted. "While education is usually protected from [such] cuts, funding increases may be nonexistent or smaller than desired if budget problems become severe."

Experts in 17 states listed overall8budget problems as their most pressing concern, with analysts in 12 states predicting that policymakers will have a difficult time matching spending needs with revenue demands.

In five states--Arizona, Iowa, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Louisiana--deep budget cuts will be required in 1988 to avoid year-end deficits, the report noted. In Nebraska, however, the experts said that an improved economic climate will allow legislators to raise spending.

Tax matters will also receive priority attention in 20 states, the report said, with property-tax relief topping the agenda in Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

In general, the report noted, legislatures are broadening their range of concerns. While education, tax policy, and other perennial topics continue to dominate the agenda, states are wrestling with a diverse assortment of other issues, many of them related to school-age children.

For instance, analysts in five states--Hawaii, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington--said their legislatures would be concentrating this year on spending for social services. Experts in Washington and South Carolina also said that programs to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome would be a top priority.

--wm

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