Clock ticks on budget negotiators

JACKSON – In the effort to negotiate a state budget, things have taken a turn for the worse.
House and Senate leaders have been unable to agree on how to divvy up more than $5 billion in revenue to fund various state agencies and education.
And to use a sports analogy, the clock is becoming a factor.
A new budget year begins July 1, meaning time is running out for House and Senate budget negotiators to reach an agreement and present it to the full Legislature for an up or down vote and then to Gov. Haley Barbour for his approval or veto.
The budget was supposed to be finished and the 2009 legislative session adjourned in early April.
But an unusually cordial group of House and Senate leaders agreed then to recess the session to get more information on the state’s share of federal stimulus funds and how that money could be used to plug budget holes.
Those holes are growing larger by the day as state tax collections continue to plummet during the recession.
The Legislature came back into session in early May for three days to pass a 50-cent-per-pack-cigarette tax increase, which will provide an additional $106 million annually in revenue. But they still could not agree on a budget.
No big deal, legislative leaders said.
“We really feel we need a little more time,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said at the time. “Both (Appropriations) chairmen tell the lieutenant governor and me they need a little more time …
“I feel real good about the conferees and their willingness to work together.”
On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the presiding officer, said, “I believe we have a better working relationship now than we ever had, even in these difficult times.”
But after the past week of often contentious, testy budget negotiations in which little or no progress was made, that great working relationship turned not so great.
“Senator, are you off your medication?” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said in objecting to the proposal of his counterpart, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
At another point, after a testy exchange, Nunnelee walked out as a House staff attorney presented a summary of a draft opinion from the attorney general about what would happen if Nunnelee did not agree to re-authorize Medicaid by July 1.
“If you want to stay and listen, fine. Get me a copy,” he said as he left the room where the media, lobbyists and others were watching the negotiators spar in a public meeting.
In the recent days, the Democratic House leaders have issued statements defending their position while Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who in general is much closer to the Nunnelee budget stance, has put out a statement critical of the House leaders.
Nunnelee has appeared on talk radio to defend his position.
As the legislators have struggled, civility has been replaced by snippy comments.
At one point, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, one of the negotiators quipped, “We made great progress – backward.”
While that statement was made early in the negotiations, nothing appeared to have occurred during the past week to change that assessment.
The budget negotiators are scheduled to meet again this week to work on a compromise.
The full Legislature is scheduled to reconvene May 26 to vote on a budget compromise.
Will there be anything for the full membership to vote on?
Thus far, the inability of the House and Senate negotiators to reach a budget agreement hasn’t hurt the state much, financially or otherwise.
The Legislature recessed in April without using its 90 allotted days. The Legislature came back in May for three days before recessing again to give negotiators more time to work.
If they don’t finish quickly when they return on May 26, the cost of the 2009 session starts escalating.
July 1 also gets dangerously close with state agency heads, universities and community college presidents and local school district superintendents not knowing how to plan for a new budget year.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal