According to a budget report approved by the Legislative Budget Committee, state revenue estimates continue to decline, with calculations for the current year being reduced by $222.5 million and revenue estimates for the upcoming year being reduced by $402.7 million. In other words, it appears Mississippi will collect less tax revenue during the 2009 and 2010 budget years, respectively, than it did in 2008.
Only twice in recent history have tax collections seen an annual decline – once earlier this decade and another in the early 1980s.
Due to questions and concerns relating to the federal stimulus package and the possibility of additional state budget cuts, the legislative session will likely be recessed on March 31. The legislature will then reconvene in May or June when more details from the stimulus package become available.
Though it has been a very difficult budget year, the Senate passed House Bill 1677, legislation that would fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program for the third consecutive year. It likewise would allow the government to increase from $6 million to $13 million the amount of money provided to teachers for classroom supplies.
Being a proponent of education as a member of the Senate Education Committee, I was among those who voted to fully-fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
Business leaders committed to economic development understand that a strong, viable education system is the first step to expanding business growth and development in the state. Adequate education funding must therefore remain one of our top priorities if our children are to maintain the blessings and responsibilities of a free society.
Nevertheless, although increased and higher-quality resources are associated with educational improvement, money alone cannot solve our education woes. For too many years, both the state and federal government have blindly tossed money at education without challenging the status quo. While proper funding is important, other reforms are needed to move Mississippi forward – competition, parental initiative and responsibility, along with respect for the process, would produce favorable results.
The Senate also amended House Bill 1722, an act that if signed into law would provide bond money of $20 million for repairs and renovations of existing projects at Mississippi’s major colleges and universities. The bill would authorize $6 million for our junior and community colleges, including $2 million allocated to construct a new headquarters for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.
Regarding matters not related to education, the Senate approved House Bill 1697, legislation amended by the Senate that would allocate an additional $20 million to the Wind Pool insurance program, thereby providing a total of $40 million aimed at stabilizing insurance premiums along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The private insurance market effectively abandoned the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and has not yet returned. As such, with insurance either unattainable or unaffordable, numerous households have been forced to rely on the Wind Pool program as the insurer of only resort.
Subsidizing the Wind Pool program is only a short term solution, but it should help stimulate the economy along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, particularly in financing and encouraging new construction. In the interim, we must encourage private enterprise to cultivate long term solutions that will allow the private market to fully recover.
Working to further assist the Gulf Cost in its recovery efforts, the Senate likewise passed Senate Bill 2862, legislation that would extend the time a domicile damaged by Hurricane Katrina would be considered a home under the Homestead Exemption Laws.
The Senate also approved House Bill 1623, a bill that would create incentives for cities and counties to increase revenue streams by forming entertainment districts to showcase the unique talents of their regions. Another bill, Senate Bill 2336, would help establish a Country Music Trail in an effort to attract more tourists to our state.
For the second consecutive year, the Senate attempted to create a Health Insurance Exchange Program by passing Senate Bill 2668. The Exchange Program would provide a mechanism that facilitates the buying, selling and administration of private health insurance. It would allow employees to purchase health insurance policies with pretax dollars while also allowing an insurance policy to transfer with its owner to another business. Had it been signed into law, it would have enhanced health insurance affordability and availability, but it died in the House Ways and Means Committee.
In closing, the Governor recently signed into law Senate Bill 2709, an act which will require DNA evidence to be collected in felony criminal cases, including rapes and homicides. The intent of SB 2709 is to grant police and criminal prosecutors greater latitude in solving crimes by building a future database that should assist with future investigations.
As always, it is my honor to serve you in the Senate. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me anytime.