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Mabus Plan for Funding Reforms Rejected in Senate

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The Mississippi Senate last week handed a setback to Gov. Ray Mabus's efforts to fund a major new education-reform program in the state without a tax increase.

By a 25-to-26 vote--well short of the three-fifths majority needed for passage--the Senate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a state lottery.

Mr. Mabus has said that he wants to cover the estimated $500-million cost of his plan through a combination of lottery proceeds and enhanced tax revenues generated by economic growth.

Released in October, the reform proposal includes a wide variety of school-improvement measures, such as merit schools, early-childhood intervention, and improvements in teacher pay and benefits. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989.)

The Senate vote came the same day that the Governor delivered his State of the State Address.

Although Mr. Mabus did not mention the lottery issue during his speech, the week before he had ad4dressed a joint session of the legislature on his reform package.

In that speech, the Governor strongly urged lawmakers to put the lottery amendment before the voters in a statewide referendum.

"This decision should be made at the ballot box by the people and not anywhere else by anybody else," Mr. Mabus said.

The Governor cited a poll showing that 69 percent of those questioned favored a lottery. "The legislature should not be a roadblock to this kind of overwhelming show of support," he said.

The House has passed a lottery amendment three times. But each time it has reached the Senate, it has met the same fate it did last week.

The lottery proposal also received an unexpected boost last week, however, when the state attorney general ruled that bingo games are a form of lottery, and thus unconstitutional. The ruling will affect numerous bingo games currently operated in the state by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other nonprofit groups.

Sources close to Mr. Mabus said they hope that groups hurt by the ruling will pressure their senators to reconsider placing the lottery amendment on the June ballot.

Opposes Tax Increase

Mr. Mabus said in his education address that funds for his reform plan should be found elsewhere in the budget if the lottery amendment is not accepted. He reaffirmed his opposition to a tax increase.

"Some people evidently see raising taxes as a sign of courage," he said. "I disagree as strongly as I know how."

Speaker of the House Tim Ford has said, however, that funds are not available in the existing budget for the complete program, and that some tax alternatives may have to be considered.

Mr. Mabus said that taxes were raised "in the name of education" after passage of the state's landmark 1982 education-reform law. But, he argued, much of that money actually was used for other programs.

"More than $534 million raised in the name of the first education-reform act has been spent on other things," Mr. Mabus said. "And that figure represents more than the entire three-year cost" of the new reform proposal.

Under Mr. Mabus's plan, $180 million of the program's $500-million cost over three years would come from a lottery; the remaining $319.7 million would come from projected growth in revenues.

Aside from the lottery, Mr. Mabus focused his education address on comparisons between his package and bills currently before the House and Senate education committees.

The Governor proposed a "Better Schools" program, for example, that would provide financial rewards and regulatory relief to high-achieving schools.

A select House committee appointed to draft that chamber's reform bill kept the concept intact. But the Senate bill would reduce cash awards to successful schools from $1,000 to $100 for each certified employee, and would not provide regulatory relief.

The bill before the Senate committee also does not include Mr. Mabus's proposed "Corporation for Educational Innovation," which would be a panel of educators and business leaders responsible for overseeing reforms. The board would be similar to one in South Carolina.

Critics of the proposal, including the former state school superintendent, Richard A. Boyd, argue that the "super board" would usurp the powers of the state board of education.

But opponents have misunderstood the idea behind the board, Mr. Mabus maintained in his speech. "It is intended primarily to monitor these programs and tell us if results are achieved," he said, adding that the board would not duplicate the efforts of any existing body.

The House bill includes a version of the board.

The Governor's plan also includes a total of $300 million in bonds over three years for school construction, air conditioning, and asbestos control.

The House bill, by contrast, calls for $75 million in bonds over 3 years for construction and another $20 million annually in cash reserves for air conditioning and asbestos control.

The Senate proposes funding such efforts through a 3 percent utility tax on residential customers.

Another difference between thebills concerns school consolidation. The Senate measure includes a provision aimed at encouraging voluntary consolidation of the state's 152 school districts, while the Mabus plan and the House bill do not address the issue.

The three plans agree on a number of points, including measures to:

  • Authorize state intervention in districts that do not meet certain standards;
  • Establish an early-childhood screening program;
  • Provide funds for the acquisition of computers;
  • Deny driver's licenses to dropouts; and
  • Establish several dropout-prevention programs.

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