Barbour calls for change to budget cut law

JACKSON — Gov. Haley Barbour asked for new budget cutting powers Wednesday as state tax collection revenues continue to fall short.

Barbour said in a letter sent to Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Speaker of the House Billy McCoy that December tax revenue projections were off the mark by $41.2 million or about 10.8 percent and requested support for new budget cutting powers that would allow him to spare vital services.

“The best solution is for the Legislature to allow the Governor to make cuts up to 10 percent before making across the board cuts,” Barbour wrote. “This would give much needed flexibility to Governors in tight budget times and help avoid harming essential services that cannot bear such deep cuts.”

Barbour said December was the 16th month in a row Mississippi has been off target on tax collection revenue and it’s clear he will have to make more cuts before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Barbour asked Attorney General Jim Hood for clarification of the current law that requires the governor to cut every agency’s budget by 5 percent before deeper cuts can be made to less vital services.

He’s also asking Bryant and McCoy to support changing the law to raise the limit.

“Lt. Governor Bryant appreciates the Governor’s proposal to match our spending with our revenue,” Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “The Lt. Governor believes if we burden the Governor with the constitutional mandate to balance our budget, then the Governor certainly needs the legal authority to do so.”

McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi, did not answer a call at his home seeking comment.

Barbour has made two sets of piecemeal cuts since the beginning of the fiscal year totaling more than $226 million. He slashed budgets for universities, community colleges and public schools among others in September. He made the last round of changes in early December, lopping about $54.3 million from the nearly $6 billion state budget that included cuts to Medicaid, which hit in February.

At the time he said he expected to make $160 million in additional changes by the end of the fiscal year, but did not update that figure Wednesday.

Barbour also has suggested saving money in other ways, though some of his ideas, such as combining the state’s eight public universities into five, have drawn fire.

Lawmakers adopted a tight budget blueprint earlier this month and anticipate tough decisions in the coming session, which begins next month.

Their plan is different than Barbour’s, but also includes some controversial ideas. A proposal to grant amnesty to tax scofflaws, for instance, was already under heavy debate. They call for cutting 3,600 vacant state jobs and raising fees some departments charge for services as well.

Barbour warns in his letter that something must be done soon because revenue shortfalls will likely continue even as the recession begins to release its grip on the national economy.

“Revenues will not turn a corner anytime soon,” he wrote. “Historical trends show the worst budget years for states are the two years following a recessionary period. Mississippi will continue to face months of revenue shortfalls as the nation’s economy recovers from this global recession.”

Chris Talbott/The Associated Press