Budget talks stall in face of amendment debate

JACKSON – Mississippi legislators have spent little time on the primary issue they came back to the Capitol to work on – crafting a state budget.
Instead, both the House and Senate spent hours Thursday afternoon debating a resolution that reaffirmed the United States Constitution’s 10th Amendment, which leaves to the states the rights not specified for the federal government.
Also on Thursday, lawmakers ended a special session without taking up Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to restrict the government’s taking of private property.
The resolutions, which passed both the House and Senate, represent a statement of policy. The resolutions were filed earlier in the 2009 session, before the Legislature recessed for a month. But Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, and House Rules Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, opted to bring them up Thursday, a day after they returned to work.
In the meantime, House and Senate negotiators were unable to agree on a budget compromise for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“I hope we can get out of here by Saturday,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. But if Thursday is any indication, that probably will be impossible unless legislators recess again while budget negotiators meet.
In both the House and Senate, the resolutions turned into arguments about national politics. Even though Democrats numerically control both chambers, they did not have the votes to stop the resolutions once they were called up by the chairmen.
Some argued the resolutions were a slap at the new presidential administration of Barack Obama.
Others argued that the federal government is taking away the rights of the states and that the Mississippi Legislature should express its objections.
Warren said it was good for the House to debate such issues, but not all agreed.
“It is a shame we are out here doing this. The people expect more of us,” said Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville. But Eaton voted for the resolution and amended it to also express support for the Second Amendment right to own guns.
In the House, Democrats also were successful in passing amendments to voice support for past federal legislation that made it easier for minorities to vote and for legislation that established a federal minimum wage.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was in the process of offering an amendment in support of Mississippi native and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre when debate was finally stopped. Holland was offering the amendment, he said, to point out the time legislators were wasting expressing their opinions instead of working on the issues they returned to the Capitol to solve,
At one point during debate, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, asked, “Do we have a budget?amp”
An unusual day at the Capitol was made more so because the Legislature also was in a special session, called by Barbour, at the same time it is in regular session. Throughout the day, the Legislature had to adjourn the regular session and enter the special session and vice versa.
But the House ended the special session Thursday afternoon after passing one item on Barbour’s agenda – to give counties more flexibility in using general fund money.
That legislation is still alive in the Senate.
But neither chamber took up Barbour’s proposal to prevent the government from taking private property for economic development purposes. Barbour vetoed an eminent domain bill during the regular session because he said it did not provide an exception for major projects.
A majority of both chambers apparently still support that tougher legislation and chose not to take up the Barbour proposal.
The Senate passed the other issue on the special session agenda – legislation to allow a hospital to be built in DeSoto County. The Senate added other new medical facilities to the legislation. The bill was not considered by the House.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said that would have added to the cost of Medicaid.
Barbour could call another special session at any time.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

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