By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour announced his fourth round of budgets cuts Friday even as consensus appears to be growing in both the Senate and the House to restore at least some of the money, especially for education.
The governor’s latest round of cuts were relatively small – totaling $21 million – to bring the total reductions for this fiscal year to $458 million.
Barbour’s action comes as state tax collections remain significantly below the projected amount used to develop the budget for the 2010 fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“We are simply taking in less money every month, and we must cut spending to keep a balanced budget as required by law,” Barbour said in a prepared statement.
Even as the governor was preparing to make the cuts, the normally Barbour-allied Senate was breaking ranks with him on how to deal with the shortfall.
On Thursday, the 52-member Senate voted to take $50 million out of the state’s tobacco trust fund and use $45 million of that to restore funds to k-12 education.
Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, offered the proposal, which had the unanimous support of the chamber’s 26 Democrats and eight other Republicans.
But on Friday, hours before the governor announced his cuts, Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, got five of those nine Republicans to reverse course, allowing him to offer a counter to the Hopson proposal.
That plan called for taking $58 million out of the tobacco trust fund to offset cuts, but to spread the funds around to different areas, such as for the district attorneys and staff, for higher education and for the Department of Corrections.
But under the Nunnelee plan, k-12 education received $16.7 million instead of the $45 million in the Hopson proposal.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, then offered another proposal, to take $12 million of the $16 million directed toward Corrections and add it to education, meaning education would receive $28.7 million.
That plan passed 44-2, with even Nunnelee voting for it.
Bryan said the vote showed that “we want to spend some of the reserve funds to reverse some of the cuts and the public education is a very big priority.”
Added Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant: “I think the senators said they are concerned about cuts to their local school districts.”
Both Bryant and Nunnelee indicated that they hope the issue can get to conference quickly so House and Senate leaders can try to resolve their differences.
The House has passed a plan to spend $100 million of the about $500 million in reserves to restore cuts. Under the House plan, public education receives an additional $43.4 million.
The House plan also provides more for higher education.
Another key difference: The House plan puts back $8.3 million of the about $19 million cut from Mental Health. The Senate plan does not restore funds for Mental Health.
The House plan does not restore any money for prisons.
The governor has tried to avoid cutting Corrections. At one point, he said he would be forced to release about 4,000 inmates if the money he cut from Corrections is not restored.
Barbour said it “is irresponsible” for the House not to return any money to Corrections. House leaders counter that Barbour has federal stimulus funds at his discretion that he could use.
Barbour and the Senate leadership have been reluctant to tap into reserve funds for the current budget woes because they expect even tougher times in the years ahead.
With Friday’s cuts, budgets for most state agencies, including education, have been chopped 8.66 percent.
K-12 education has now been cut $206.5 million, and higher education has been sliced $78.8 million.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.