By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The state Senate, acting against the wishes of its leadership, sent to Gov. Haley Barbour a House plan to spend $79 million in reserve funds to restore funds cut from the budget.
Barbour said he will veto the measure.
Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, made the motion Thursday not to send the proposal to the governor, but to go to conference where House and Senate leaders could negotiate on how much of the $458.5 million in budget cuts made by Barbour to restore.
But that motion was defeated 26-22, and then by the same 26-22 margin the Senate voted to send the proposal to Barbour.
“If it goes to conference … I think we will have a repeat of other conferences that drag on forever,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. Bryan argued, “We can pass this bill, send it to the governor and close the book on (fiscal year) 2010. Then we can move on to the next fiscal year.”
A majority of the Senate agreed with Bryan, but perhaps not enough to close the door on the 2010 fiscal year.
Even before the Senate passed the proposal, Barbour said Thursday morning he would veto it – partly because it does not give enough money back to the Department of Corrections and partly because it spends more in reserve funds than he supports.
“I expect the bill to reach my desk next week, and I will veto it and send it back to the Legislature,” the Republican governor said in a statement later Thursday.
It will take a two-thirds majority to override a gubernatorial veto, and based on Thursday’s vote, the supporters of the House proposal cannot garner that margin in the Senate.
The Legislature, because of an unprecedented slowdown in tax collections, is struggling with the budget for the current fiscal year and for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Barbour made the cuts in the budget for the current fiscal year because tax collections are not meeting projections.
Nunnelee said, “I think all this vote will do is delay the process” of reaching a compromise on how much of the cuts to restore.
But Bryan pointed out that there already is a House plan in conference that restores a portion of the budget and the Senate leadership has made no effort to meet with its House counterparts on that proposal.
The original House proposal takes $100 million out of about $500 million in reserve funds to ease the cuts. The Senate passed a plan to use $58 million in reserve funds. The $79 million plans, said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, is an effort to meet in the middle.
But Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said the House proposal that was sent to the governor Thursday spends too much of the state’s reserve funds.
“The current downturn in revenue that we are experiencing will not repair itself overnight,” Bryant said. “Every dollar we spend today is a dollar we will not have for next year.”
Nunnelee predicted that the final agreement between House and Senate leaders after the gubernatorial veto will spend about $68 million in reserve funds and will spend considerably more on prisons than what has passed the House or Senate thus far.
That is the crux of the debate.
In conference, the Senate leadership will advocate for spending less on education than was approved Thursday in order to spend more on Corrections.
Or else, modest amounts spent on other agencies – such as $1.2 million to ensure nursing homes for veterans remain open, $1.5 million to ensure the state’s districts attorneys are reimbursed for expenses to try cases, and $4 million to offset cuts to the Department of Mental Health – will have to be sacrificed.
That is why Bryan argued on the Senate floor that for members wanting to restore a greater share of the $285 million cut from education, “It ain’t going to get any better than this. It is just dysfunctional to go to conference.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.