Budget agreement reached

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – House and Senate negotiators were able to agree on a $4.5 million general fund budget late Sunday and remain on track to finish their work in the 2006 session by the upcoming weekend.

The budget agreement, will be spelled out in more than 70 appropriations bills that will be taken up today by the full House and Senate. Negotiators missed their deadline of 8 p.m. Saturday to reach accord, but both the House and Senate suspended the rules by a two-thirds vote to allow negotiations to continue.

If they were not able to agree Sunday night, more dramatic action would have had to occur to reach an budget agreement. Last year for the first time the Legislature had to come back in special session to craft a budget.

Both House and Senate leaders said they wanted to avoid another budget special session.

While the budget appears to be back on track, bond bills do not. As of Sunday night, House and Senate negotiators working on bond bills had not reached agreement,

Bond bills are pending to fund various projects at the universities and the community colleges and to fund various economic development projects, including Wellspring near Blue Springs in Northeast Mississippi.

“Wellspring is on life support,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point. “We are still looking at what we can pass in the Senate.”

Northeast Mississippi officials have asked for $14.5 million in state funds to match $4.5 million in local funds to purchase and prep land at Wellspring in hopes of attracting an auto maker.

Actually all bond bills could be described as on life support. The legislative leaders must agree on bond bills today and pass them to stay within the existing House and Senate rules.

Of the budget, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, said, “We have ended up spending about $600 million more than last year. It is spread out pretty much throughout state government.”

All state employees will get a raise of at least $1,500. University and community college faculty and staff will receive raises of 5 percent.

The universities and community colleges will receive a total of $855 million or about a 13 percent increase. Both House and Senate negotiators wanted to do more at one point for higher education, but Gordon said they compromised at $855 to be closer to what Gov. Haley Barbour had proposed. He had proposed $822 million for higher education.

The Adequate Education Program will be funded at the level agreed to earlier by the House and Senate as part of a plan to phase-in full funding in four years. As part of that agreement, Adequate Education will receive an additional $68 million this year.

The decision not to push full funding of the Adequate Education Program caused a rift in the House and that issue could arise again today when the budget bills are brought up. The Adequate Education Program is the mechanism that provides most of the basics of operating local school districts.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said overall, including increases in health insurance and retirement benefits, that education will receive an additional $100 million for the upcoming year.

When asked about education funding, House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said, “It's going to be good. … It's not only going to be good, but it is going to get better.”

Stringer said no deficits were left in any agency in the budget agreement. The new budget year begins July 1.