Budget deadlock raises ‘what if…?’ question

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – All say it won’t happen, but state officials admitted Thursday they are researching what will occur if the Legislature does not agree on a budget this month.
During about two months of on-again, off-again negotiations involving House and Senate leaders, and with input from Gov. Haley Barbour, little progress has been made in reaching a budget agreement.
And at midnight Wednesday, the 2009 legislative session ended without a budget to fund state government for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The disagreement centers on the desire by Barbour and the Senate to hold $60 million for the next fiscal year. House leaders say there is no reason to put money aside.
Barbour said Thursday during a news conference, “I anticipate an agreement will be reached. As soon as an agreement is reached, I will call the Legislature back in special session, hopefully, to adopt a budget in short order.”
But what will happen if there is no budget agreement by July 1? The Constitution gives the Legislature the sole authority to appropriate funds to run government. If no funds are appropriated, how can state government operate?
“There are staff members working on that question right now,” said Doug Davis, R-Herando, one of the Senate’s negotiators. “At this point and time, I think it would be irresponsible not to ask that question.”
Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, the lead House negotiator, said, “We have never been this close before” to a new fiscal year without a budget. Normally, the Legislature passes a budget in April or early May at the latest.
In 2005, a budget disagreement was resolved on May 28 in special session.
This time, Barbour said, “I am just assuming there is going to be an agreement … This has happened in other states.”
When asked what happened in states where there was a failure to reach an agreement before a new fiscal year began, he said, “I have some people looking into that right now even though I don’t think it is going to happen here.”
Attorney General Jim Hood, the state’s chief attorney, said his staff has begun researching the question, too.
He also stressed he believes there will be an agreement, but ‘“my job is to know what our options are… This kind of brinksmanship is not good for anybody.”
Hood said he is studying whether an emergency court order could take care of “vital services,” such as keeping the prisons open.
“We would do something. We don’t want to allow UMC to close, Whitfield to shutdown and the prisons to shut down,” he said, referring to the University Medical Center and the state mental hospital.
Kym Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said problems will show up if there is no budget by the middle of June.
“The later we get, the harder it is,” she said. The problem is that DFA must go through the more than 100 budget bills to program the expenditures into its computer system to make the payments required in the bills, such as for salaries.