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Lawmakers work to revive MAEP rewrite, PERS changes as session nears end

Lawmakers are working to revive a proposal to rewrite the long-standing Mississippi Adequate Education Program that provides the state’s share of the basics to operate local school districts.

A resolution to revive the measure in the final days of this legislative session was passed by the Senate and is pending in the House.

The resolution also would revive an effort to strip away the power of the Public Employee Retirement System Board to increase the amount state and local governments contribute to Mississippi’s government pension program. While stripping away the board’s authority, the Legislature in the resolution would commit to infusing more cash into the retirement system.

The resolution, which is needed before either of the two pivotal issues can be taken up this late in the session, still must pass the House. Speaker Jason White, R-West, said the House could take up the resolution in the coming days.

White added that there is a possibility this legislative session, set to end within about a week, might be extended, which also would require a resolution. Such a resolution would not necessarily mean the Legislature stays in Jackson for additional days, but would give the option for the Legislature to recess and come back at a later date.

The Senate resolution that spelled out what would be in the new legislation included an objective funding formula to ascertain the amount of money needed to operate a school.

House leaders have been insistent on rewriting MAEP this session. Senate leaders were equally insistent that any rewrite of the school funding formula include an objective method of determining the base student cost – the amount of money provided to each school per student.

The original House bill did not include an objective formula. But the resolution does include such a formula. Any final bill passed based on the resolution could change the language in the resolution.

Senate Education Chairman Denis DeBar, R-Leakesville, said the proposed education funding compromise includes key elements from both the House and Senate plans.

“It has a major priority of the Senate – an objective funding formula,” he said. “The formula will give school districts predictability in terms of their funding levels.”

He said the formula would be easier for some to understand than MAEP.

Plus, DeBar said the formula would provide “weights” or additional funding to educate students who fall into specific categories, such as low income students. Providing additional funds for certain categories of students was a key proposal of the House,

On Thursday, House Education Chair Robertson, R-Starkville, said he was still studying the proposed education formula rewrite compromise, but said “we’re close.”

The same resolution also includes language reviving issues concerning the state’s massive Public Employees Retirement System. The language in the resolution, which again could be altered in the process, strips away the authority of the board that governs PERS to unilaterally increase the amount of money governmental entities, both state and local, pay into the public employee pension program.

Instead, the board, which consists primarily of people elected by public employees and retirees, could only make a recommendation to the Legislature to increase the amount governmental entities pay into the system.

An original House bill would have dissolved the existing PERS Board and replaced it with a board consisting primarily of political appointees. The House bill caused an uproar among members of PERS, which consists of about 365,000 current government employees, retirees and others who are eligible for benefits when they retire.

The Senate killed the House proposal, but later passed a measure stripping away a significant portion of the PERS Board’s authority.

The issues surrounding PERS have come to the forefront this session after the board voted to increase by 5% over three years the amount government entities contribute toward the paycheck of each employee. Various agencies, especially city and county governments, complained they could not afford the increase that would require them to raise taxes and-or cut services.

The PERS Board said the increase is needed, based on recommendations of financial experts, to address a possible long-term funding shortfall facing the system. Some, though, argued the board overreacted based on a short-term financial snapshot of the system.

While stripping away the authority from the board, the resolution calls for the Legislature to provide PERS with an infusion of cash to offset the revenue loss by preventing the 2% increase in the employer contribution rate from being enacted. A 2% increase would cost state and local governments about $150 million.

In the resolution, the Legislature would commit to providing a .5% increase in the employer rate each year for five years. But it would be paid with state tax dollars by the Legislature instead of county and city governments and school districts.

The passage of the suspension resolution would indicate the House and Senate are close to agreement on two of the major issues facing the Legislature as the scheduled end of the 2024 session approaches.

The new formula for per-student funding from the state would be based on the average teacher’s salary and number of students enrolled.

Then, the districts would get additional funds for administrative expenses, ancillary personnel and maintenance.

After that the schools would get a specified amount of additional funds in various categories, such as for special education students, low income students, non-English learners and other categories.

DeBar said under the proposed rewrite of MAEP, local schools would get about $220 million more than they received for the current fiscal year. That amount would be about $30 million less than the MAEP would have provided for the upcoming year if fully funded. The original House plan to rewrite MAEP would include an amount that was close to what MAEP would have generated if fully funded.

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