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Miss. Lawmakers Adopt Sales-Tax Hike Over Fordice Veto

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The Mississippi Legislature last week narrowly overturned Gov. Kirk Fordice's veto of a bill that raises the state's sales tax by 1 percent to support public education.

The sales tax will increase from 6 percent to 7 percent on June 1, generating an estimated $166 million in new revenues annually. Of that amount, about $120 million will be placed each year in an "Educational Enhancement Fund'' for public schools and colleges.

Educators and legislators hailed the new fund, saying it will bring much-needed stability to the state's education-finance system.

"Our school administrators can now deal more with educational programming rather than fighting the financial fires of keeping the equipment in the buildings properly operated,'' said Senator Ronnie Musgrove, the chairman of the chamber's education committee.

The state, which ranks 50th in the nation in per-pupil spending, has cut education aid by more than $60 million in the past two years.

The vote to override the Governor's veto was 82 to 37 in the House--just two votes more than needed for a two-thirds majority--and 42 to 10 in the Senate.

"This was one of the state board of education's primary legislative goals this year,'' said Judy Rhodes, the state's associate superintendent of education for administration and finance. "Quite frankly, we really did not have a lot of hope for such major legislation coming through.''

The Three B's

The new funds will be targeted primarily at what Ms. Rhodes called the "three B's'' of public education: buildings, buses, and books.

Each year, $26 million will be set aside for transportation and buildings, she said.

The fund will also make available annually:

  • $8.87 million for textbooks;
  • $10 million for classroom supplies;
  • $8.6 million for the state's equity funding program, which is designed to close the gap between richer and poorer districts;
  • $23 million for universities and colleges; and
  • $15 million for junior and community colleges.

The bill's supporters called it the most significant advance for schools since the state's 1982 Education Reform Act. In its 1990 session, the legislature passed a comprehensive reform bill supported by then-Gov. Ray Mabus, but failed to finance it.

"We felt that the legislature stood tall and that it was sending a message to the Governor that education is first,'' said Jerry Sharp, the president of the Mississippi PTA.

"With the cuts in the last year, if this veto had stood, I think we would have been in a pretty deep pit,'' Mr. Sharp said. "And we would have been shoveling for a long time just to get out of it.''

Supporters of the legislation also suggested that the override was a big defeat for Governor Fordice, Mississippi's first Republican governor in 115 years. Mr. Fordice promised not to raise taxes when he was elected last fall, and has adamantly opposed increasing state aid to education.

"This isn't a setback for the Governor; it's a setback for the people of Mississippi,'' said John Arledge, a spokesman for the Governor. He said the general population opposes tax increases and suggested that the legislature passed the increase as a result of intense pressure from education lobbyists.

Compromise Provisions

In an effort to soothe the Governor and his backers, the bill included provisions that allocate $30 million to districts for property-tax reduction and require them to cut their administrative budgets by 1 percent this year and 2 percent annually for each of the next four years.

State agencies will also be required to cut their administrative budgets by 10 percent over the next five years.

Mr. Arledge, however, called the provisions "just lip service.'' He said schools should first make better use of their existing budgets before asking for more money.

The bill's critics say it will disproportionately affect low-income residents. They also noted that it did not include any funds for increasing teachers' salaries or implementing new reforms.

"I felt we should have looked at our tax exemptions or found other ways to raise the money,'' said Senator Travis Little, who voted against the bill. "We need to get a hold on the growth in state government we've had in the past few years.''

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