Opinion – 1/5/2007

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2007

The Panolian: OPINIONS

 From the 01/05/07 issue of The Panolian        

Salter: Barbour’s nod to MAEP Good policy and good politics

When Gov. Haley Barbour told The Associated Press recently that he expects to sign a Mississippi Adequate Education Program full-funding bill during the 2007 session, it was like the air being let out of a balloon.

The bitterly contentious 2007 legislative session that had been forecast suddenly seemed far less likely. While there are a few political land mines still on the legislative battlefield, the prospects for a positive, productive session seemed far brighter as the new session was gaveled to order on Jan. 2.

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For Barbour and for legislators in both parties, there’s both good public policy and good politics in fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program – the state’s basic public education funding mechanism.

The public policy positives are obvious. First, fully funding MAEP when the funds are available to do so is no more or less than following state law.

Second, fully funding MAEP gives the state’s school districts some fiscal breathing room and should serve to protect the state from federal lawsuits over equity in education funding between poor districts and more affluent ones.

From prison reform to cleaning up public corruption, Mississippi has a history of waiting on the federal government to force the state to do what it should have done under its own power. Equity funding in public education is designed to give every child an equal place at the starting line and it’s simply the right thing to do.

The political positives are just as obvious for Barbour and for lawmakers alike.

First, Barbour’s success as governor in the legislative arena has rested in his ability to forge a coalition of Republican and conservative Democratic state senators that made his vetoes of bills pushed by the Democrat-led House stand up.

Even members of Barbour’s Senate coalition feel heat back home over public education funding

Second, incumbent legislators have a hard time winning re-election when the folks in the school districts back home are unhappy with them. In election years, legislators tend to value happy voters more than a happy governor.

Clearly, there’s not a Democratic contender visible on the state’s political horizon stepping forward to take Barbour on in 2007. The incumbent Republican governor has a few quality enemies, but not in sufficient numbers to trump Barbour’s popularity with voters in the state who admired his leadership during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Even the relatively slow pace of Katrina housing grants hasn’t cost Barbour significant support.

But while Barbour has frequently stated his reservations about the worth of the MAEP formula in producing a better educational outcome, it appears he does realize the folly of tossing some of his closest legislative allies under the political bus in their home districts over the issue in an election year.

Legislators fully funded MAEP in the 2003 election year and it appears they will again this year – which speaks volumes about the issue.

The appearance of some early consensus on fully funding MAEP, a three-percent teacher pay raise, a state employee pay hike and other big ticket spending items in no way gives Barbour or legislators a pass on the partisan division and infighting that have produced legislative gridlock at times over the last three years.

The always contentious issues of raising cigarette taxes and lowering the state’s sales tax on groceries are not only not going away, the political efforts behind them are intensifying.

But Barbour’s resolve on the tobacco tax and sales tax issues appears rock solid. On those issues, Barbour is indeed willing to throw legislators under the political bus.

In the midst of those issues, it’s also clear that the state’s universities and colleges may well once again be left holding the bag.

Higher education funding is the joker in the 2007 session’s deck – as the universities wait on IHL Commissioner Tom Meredith to cut the cards and play the hands of all eight institutions.


(Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.)

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