Budget leaders exceed deadline

BY BOBBY HARRISON
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – House and Senate negotiators were unable to meet Wednesday night's deadline to reach agreement on a state budget proposal, but both sides expressed confidence that a compromise can be reached to avoid coming back in special session.

“We're not going to meet tonight's deadline, but that is an easy issue to resolve,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. “I think we are making significant progress.”

If an agreement is reached on how to divvy up about $17.6 million in state tax revenue and federal funds, both Nunnelee and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said they believed both chambers would suspend the rules to bypass Wednesday's deadline and pass a budget.

But if the impasse goes much beyond today, more significant parliamentary maneuvers will be necessary to meet deadlines for passage of budget bills. The session is scheduled to end April 19.

One of the cornerstones of any budget agreement will be how to fund Medicaid. On Wednesday, the House Medicaid Committee passed legislation that would raise the cigarette tax by $1 per pack and the liquor tax by 1 cent to help Medicaid, which faces a deficit of about $100 million for the current year and a shortfall of about $250 million for the upcoming year, which begins July 1.

The Senate Public Health Committee discussed levying a $105-per-day tax on hospital beds to help with the Medicaid funding, but did not act on the legislation.

The tobacco tax passed the House earlier this year. The Senate leaders and Gov. Haley Barbour have blocked all efforts to pass the cigarette tax in the Senate.

The House also had passed a 3 percent teacher pay raise. Neither the governor's budget nor the Senate's budget provided a pay raise for teachers. Stringer admitted that unless the governor and Senate leadership changed their minds on the cigarette tax, the state wouldn't have money for a teacher pay raise.

Stringer explained the cigarette tax provided funds for Medicaid and freed up other state revenue for the teacher pay raise.

While the teacher pay raise supported by the House might be dead, it also appears that the proposal also is dead to remove the civil service protection enjoyed by many state employees.

Stringer said Wednesday the removal of the civil service protection wouldn't be incorporated into the budget bills. The proposal was being pushed by Barbour.

“We're making some progress,” Stringer said. “We are willing to give some if they will. We just want to be part of the process.”