Louisiana, Mississippi Lawmakers to Weigh Revenue Needs
Mississippi legislators were scheduled to convene in a special session this week, and their Louisiana counterparts are expected to do so in the next month or so, as both states focus on issues of economic recovery and aid for coastal school districts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana lawmakers face the problem of helping some flood-ravaged districts survive financially. The New Orleans school system, which enrolled 60,000 students before the storm forced mass evacuations, is no longer paying its teachers.
State Rep. Carl N. Crane, the Republican who chairs the education committee of the Democratic-controlled Louisiana House, said he and other state officials fear that Louisiana could lose many well-qualified teachers to neighboring states unless their paychecks can continue.
“The [education] system does not cease to exist, even if the schools don’t have students. It’s got to be in place once the students come back,” he said of the school districts closed because of damage from Katrina.
In addition, he promised, “those [Louisiana] districts that are picking up students displaced from the impacted areas, they will be reimbursed for the additional costs.”
Rep. Crane added that he expects Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, to call a special session for October or November.
Louisiana lawmakers will consider changing the state’s school finance formula to keep teachers’ paychecks flowing while supplying extra money to the many districts across the state now serving students displaced from the coastal areas, Mr. Crane said.
The state has had nearly 250,000 students from public and private schools displaced by the hurricane and the flooding that followed, he said. The lawmaker suggested that the costs of educating evacuee students may need to be divided between the students’ former districts and the ones now serving them.
Louisiana, like Mississippi, is also seeking financial aid as well as regulatory flexibility from the federal government. ("Requests Seek Financial Aid, Policy Waivers," Sept. 14, 2005.)
“We’re all committed to keeping the education progress that we’re making, keeping it on track,” he said.
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, called the Democratic-controlled legislature into a special session, which was set to open Sept. 27, to deal with the state’s fiscal challenges and help storm-damaged districts avoid the financial distress some Louisiana districts are facing.
Districts in Mississippi that remain closed are still paying their teachers and administrators, lawmakers said last week. Gov. Barbour is allowing noncertified school employees to be placed on administrative leave so they can continue to receive pay and benefits temporarily.
But, just as in Louisiana, legislators may need to act to allow districts to share funding because upward of 34,000 Mississippi students cannot yet attend schools in storm-damaged districts.
State Sen. Mike Chaney, the chairman of the education committee of the Mississippi Senate, said the state has hired school finance consultants to create “a moving average” of per-pupil costs so that state funds could follow students to different districts, and then back to their old schools when they reopen.
The Democrat added that the state may need to provide extra money to schools if federal aid and insurance payments do not cover all repair costs. “The issue for us will be, how do we replace the local tax dollars in these districts that have lost upwards of 40 to 50 percent of their tax base?” Sen. Chaney said.
Lawmakers also will consider providing small-business loans from the state to help some primary employers—and revenue-generators for schools—rebuild. In addition, they will weigh new rules for casinos along the state’s Gulf Coast, many of which were devastated by the storm.
Current state law dictates that casinos cannot sit on Mississippi land, which has forced developers to build casinos and resort hotels on barges and piers attached to land along the Gulf of Mexico and on the Mississippi River.
The legislature could change those rules, which Gov. Barbour and others argue would allow resorts to rebuild more quickly and more affordably.
“It’s going to be pretty hotly debated,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, a Democrat from Jackson who chairs the House education committee in Mississippi. He plans to support changes to the casino laws.
“I’m going to support moving them on land,” Mr. Brown added. “It’s rather silly to have them appearing to be boats,” when they aren’t.
Others fear that an expansion of gambling, which some in Mississippi see as immoral, could allow gambling to explode on the coast and in other areas.
Vol. 25, Issue 05, Page 16