Lawmakers say property-rich areas won’t lose funds

Published 11:13 am Wednesday, February 1, 2017

By Jeff Amy

Associated Press

JACKSON, — It could be weeks before Mississippians see any real proposals from their representatives on a new school funding formula, but some lawmakers said Tuesday they won’t require any districts to contribute more property taxes — something that could markedly drive up costs of other changes recommended by a consultant.

Email newsletter signup

The Senate Education and House Appropriations committees advanced bills Tuesday that are mostly placeholders with plans to be added later. Critics assailed the “dummy” bills, saying the state is ill-served by secrecy and limited debate on a decision that could affect Mississippi children for decades.

“You don’t know how much it’s going to cost; you don’t know how it affects your local schools, you don’t know how it’s going to affect local taxes,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. “You know nothing, and you’re being asked to vote for it.”

Leaders of the House committee also had no formula to offer.

Significantly, they pledged that no district would lose money compared to what it gets from the state now. That includes leaving in place a rule that caps any district’s local property tax contribution at 27 percent of the overall cost of educating a student, exempting property-rich districts from contributing local property taxes at as high a rate as property-poor districts. Without the rule, rich districts would have to raise property taxes or cut spending.

“I don’t think we’re going to touch the 27 percent rule,” said Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, wasn’t that firm. But he told reporters that the Senate and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves were leaning in that direction.

That would mean the other recommendations from consultant EdBuild could cost the state a lot more, because a new formula wouldn’t get the benefit of $120 million worth of increased local money that EdBuild seeks.

Estimates by The Associated Press show it would cost the state roughly $145 million more than it spends now if lawmakers adopt the other recommendations without requiring more local tax money. That’s within about $25 million of the full amount demanded by law under the current formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which lawmakers have only completely funded twice in 20 years. It’s also about $75 million more than EdBuild’s plan that included more local tax money, according to AP projections.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, acknowledged that leaving property tax contributions unchanged meant seeking new revenue.

“You have to raise money from other sources,” he said.

Protecting property-rich districts would benefit Read’s constituents in the Pascagoula-Gautier district, which could otherwise lose more than $14 million.

When asked who made the decision, Read answered: “Let’s just say I’ve been told.”

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Gunn represents part of Madison County, also a big loser if tax contributions increase.

Madison County Superintendent Ronnie McGehee said he’d talked to Gunn about the issue.

“We’ve got to walk together through this,” McGehee said, adding his district shouldn’t be hurt.

Mississippi First Executive Director Rachel Canter, though, criticized the decision to shield property-rich districts, saying they can afford to give more.

“We should be giving these dollars to districts that cannot raise resources locally,” said Canter, whose group lobbies for educational changes in the state.