Senate Chairman Joey Fillingane: Public school donation effort was ‘crazy bill’

Published 10:28 am Thursday, March 23, 2017

By Kate Royals

Mississippi Today

The Senate chairman who declined to advance a bill that would have allowed tax-deductible donations to public schools said Wednesday that the “crazy bill” would have diverted state tax collections, harming poorer districts.

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, told Mississippi Today that he did not bring the bill up for consideration by his committee, essentially killing it, because it’s a “crazy bill.”

“The reason it’s crazy is it makes you feel good that you can donate money to a specific public school of your choice,” he said. “What it actually does is … it takes money out of the general fund – 62 percent of which goes to public education.”

“So essentially what you would be allowing is for me to donate to my alma mater, Sumrall High School, and take the amount of that donation off as a tax write-off,” Fillingane continued. “I then don’t have those dollars in the general fund to spend on all the public schools across the state.”

House Bill 1702, which passed the House unanimously, would have allowed tax deductible donations to be made for specific purposes to public schools — for example, $200 for classroom supplies.

“What it would actually do, in practicality, in my opinion, is it would benefit wealthy districts because that’s where your donor class is going to be, largely,” Fillingane said. “They’re going to donate to those schools who have the least need for it, in all honesty, and take from the poorest of those schools all across the state that don’t have donors that can send money to them.”

“All these well-intentioned, bleeding hearts over there (in the House) that want to send us this bill, what they actually would do is benefit the wealthy districts then cut everyone else, including the poorest of districts across the state,” he continued.

Bi-partisan measure

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said he authored the bill after meeting with Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, over the summer.

Both Hughes and Moore disagree with Fillingane’s assessment of the bill.

“I can say without equivocation the company and wealthy individual who wanted to take advantage of directly benefiting students in K-12 who’ve been shorted by the administration and the General Fund live in and want to contribute to one of the poorest districts in the entire state,” Hughes said.

“Think of it from this point: if I’m making $50,000 a year and I donate $1,000 to Jackson Public Schools to go to the 3rd-grade notebooks, that is $1,000 direct dollars that goes into JPS that gives kids notebooks, paper, etc. That’s only $35 that is not in the general fund … To put it another way, that’s $12 that didn’t get allocated across the state in education,” Hughes said.

“Twelve dollars missing from the General Fund pales in comparison to the $353 million missing from the budget this year from the corporate tax cuts the last five years, or the $2 billion in the public schools have been underfunded below ‘adequate,’ ” Hughes said.

The $353 million figure comes from the cumulative amount of general fund revenue lost due to tax cuts passed by the Legislature since 2012, according to the Legislative Budget Office. The $2 billion amount Hughes referenced comes from estimates of how much the Legislature has failed to fund public schools over the past 20 years under the Mississippi Adequate Education Prorgram, the basic funding mechanism for public education.

“I don’t follow that logic at all,” Moore said in response to Fillingane’s take on the bill, which was also sponsored by several Democrats.

“I try not to ever look at who the author of the bill is, I try to look and see if it’s a good piece of legislation,” he also noted.

Moore said he supported it because it would be “good for everybody.”

Reeves killed it?

Hughes said he believes that the bill was killed at Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ direction.

Because Moore was having heart surgery during the week of committee deadlines, Hughes said he went to Fillingane to seek support for the bill. He was then sent to an adviser of Reeves, who said the office would look at the bill.

“Of all the things that have offended me down here, to take away the one vehicle that would help our students in the classroom that passed unanimously, by one man,” Hughes said.

Reeves’s office declined to comment when asked whether Reeves directed that the bill not be brought up.

The bill would have allowed donations to the schools to be deducted from a taxpayer’s gross income and would allow the total amount of all deductions to be claimed. The bill would not have allowed the deductions claimed to exceed the taxpayer’s total taxable income for the year.

The bill would have allowed a taxpayer to designate a specific use for the donated funds and if so indicated, would have required the local school district to use the funds in that manner.

Currently, donations made to foundations of universities and colleges can be written off, but donations to public schools cannot. Donations made to the state’s early learning collaboratives, or public-private partnerships that provide Pre-K to three and four-year-olds, are also tax deductible.