Dems offer alternative plan for Miss. 2016 budget, with more money for education and highways



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JACKSON, Mississippi — Democrats in the Mississippi Legislature are offering their own budget proposal that they say would pump more money into education.

Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory and Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson released the plan Thursday, two days after the Republican-led Joint Legislative Budget Committee released its spending proposal. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant last month unveiled his spending recommendations for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1.

Legislators will debate budget proposals during their three-month session that starts in January, and they're under an early April deadline to adopt a plan. Republicans control the House and Senate, and it's unclear whether Democrats will gain traction for their ideas.

Bryan said the Democrats propose fully funding $40 million for the second year of a teacher pay raise, while the $32 million proposed by the Budget Committee would fall short. Brown said Democrats were surprised by "the lack of focus on education" in the Budget Committee's blueprint.

"The statement from the leaders of that committee was that education was a priority," Brown said during a news conference at the Capitol. "Well, you certainly couldn't tell that from looking at their budget recommendation."

House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who alternate as chairmen of the Budget Committee, said the Legislature will fully fund the teacher pay raise. They two Republican leaders said in a joint statement Thursday that the $32 million figure in their proposal came from the staff of the Legislative Budget Office.

"There should be no doubt that the Legislature will honor its commitment to teachers," Gunn and Reeves said.

Democrats also are proposing a $1,000 pay raise for each state employee, plus higher spending for community colleges, universities and highways — all without increasing taxes.

"This can be done," Bryan said. "We're not proposing something that's outlandish. We're not proposing something that's irresponsible."

The state-funded portion of Mississippi's budget for the current year is about $6 billion, and legislators are expected to approve a slightly larger budget for the coming year. Bryant is proposing an income tax break for people who earn less than about $53,000 a year, which, if approved, would cost about $78.7 million.

Reeves and Gunn said Monday that some sort of tax cut might be debated during the legislative session, but it's too soon to know the details.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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