Mississippi budgeters say they'll add money for Medicaid, colleges and universities in 2016

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi's budget writers said Saturday that Medicaid, universities and community colleges will get more money than previous estimates called for in the year beginning July 1, in a total budget of roughly $6.1 billion.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said their ability to plug holes in last-minute negotiations Saturday was limited because revenue estimates for the 2016 budget didn't rise much.

On Wednesday, lawmakers added nearly $102 million to the revenue estimate for the current budget year, which ends June 30. But they only added $30 million to the 2016 budget projection.

"There ain't no plug money in the chairman's back pocket," Frierson said.

Negotiators meeting Saturday must file agreements by 8 p.m., although some placeholder bills with zeroes for spending amounts could be filed if staff member run out of time. The House and Senate are expected to start passing bills Sunday, but have until Monday's end to complete the work.

Bills for the state to borrow money through bonds are also due to be filed Saturday night. Two main bills are expected — one to borrow $200 million or more for state government, college and university construction, and a larger one that will use casino taxes to borrow $400 million for bridges.

Lawmakers said they plan to add $81 million to the state-federal Medicaid program to try to cover its growth. The program has run a large deficit this year, as in many previous years.

"Medicaid could absorb all your growth," Clarke said.

Universities had asked for $36 million more to fund teacher pay raises. Frierson said that of a roughly $25 million increase in operating funds, $17 million would go to money that could be used to fund faculty and everyday operations.

Incoming Higher Education Commissioner Jim Borsig said it would be the first time since 2008 that lawmakers appropriated money for faculty salary increases. Mississippi's eight public universities have given increases since then, but have used money they've raised mainly from tuition increases.

"I am encouraged and I believe that addressing issues like this takes more than one year," Borsig said of falling short of the $36 million.

The state's 15 community colleges had sought a $79 million increase, but are in line to get only $9 million.

Gov. Phil Bryant already signed a $2.5 billion K-12 education budget that lawmakers sent to him early without going to conference, in an unusual move. Some lawmakers sought to add money to expand state-funded preschool and raise pay for assistant teachers, but budget chairmen said that's unlikely.

The K-12 budget increased funding to schools by $110 million, including $40 million for the second year of a teacher pay raise. It still leaves the state funding formula $211 million short of the amount it calls for to provide an adequate education. Lawmakers could still choose to fund assistant teacher pay raises out of that pot of money, which would reduce the increase to the formula by up to $10 million.

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