The state’s three historically black universities would be combined into one, Jackson State, and the Mississippi University for Women, known as the ”W,” would merge with Mississippi State under the $5.5 billion budget Gov. Haley Barbour presented Monday to legislators.
Barbour also wants to reduce the 132 public school districts in the state to help save $1.22 billion needed to balance the budget for the 2012 fiscal year that begins July 1.
By Barbour’s reckoning, the state can expect a budget shortfall of $715.5 million for the 2011 fiscal year that ends June 30.
He already has made $172 million worth of spending cuts just four months into the budget year and expects to make $200 million further reductions before June 30 to keep this year’s budget in balance.
“This is something I did not foresee, just like (Hurricane) Katrina. This is my second big, bad storm,” he said during a news conference in the Walter Sillers State Office Building.
Barbour said the 2012 budget year will be worse, mainly because it takes longer for state government to recover from a recession than the economy in general.
He said he did not expect his spending plan to be popular, but he had no choice but to balance the budget as required by state law.
“Sometimes you have to look your friends in the eye and tell them this is the way it is. And this is one of those times,” he said.
Barbour likely can expect opposition from legislators representing the districts affected by his proposed higher education consolidation.
Rep. Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs and chairman of the House Universities and Colleges Committee, issued a statement that stopped short of opposing consolidating the universities.
“I would disagree with the governor or anyone who would suggest that closing universities or reducing access and opportunity to a variety of educational course options is the way to go,” Buck wrote.
Buck did not return a phone call to clarify whether he would support or oppose the consolidation.
Doug Davis, R-Hernando and the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee chairman, seemed inclined to support Barbour’s plan.
“What the governor did today is verify what I’ve said for past several months — that it’s highly unlikely that state government will look the same today as it will in the next two years,” he said.
Davis noted that once the federal stimulus money goes away in the middle of the 2012 fiscal year, the state will be have $1.2 billion less a year in revenue than in 2008, the last year before the economic recession hit.
Barbour said he wants to reduce the state’s 152 local school districts by one-third, still more than the number of Mississippi counties — 82.
He will ask the state Board of Education to make those decisions with information supplied by a blue ribbon committee he will appoint next month.
Local school consolidation is one reason for DeSoto County’s successful school system, said Rep. Wanda Jennings, R-Southaven and a member of the House Education Committee.
Jennings called school district consolidation “good business.”
Jennings noted that DeSoto County, the state’s largest public school district, has 35 schools and will have three more coming on line this school year.
Barbour also proposed folding state Department of Transportation officers into the Department of Public Safety, which he said would give the state 40 more highway patrol officers.
Among other changes, Barbour recommended:
Closing four Department of Mental Health facilities and six crisis centers.
Pulling state funding from the Mississippi Technology Alliance, the Commission on the Status of Women, the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions and the Mississippi River Parkway.
Cutting $20 million from the Department of Correction.
Spending $33 million on a new computer system that would help the State Tax Commission capture $264 million in unpaid state taxes.
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