By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Scattered throughout committee rooms in the state Capitol Saturday afternoon were small groups of legislators who at times were quiet and studious and at other times loud and boisterous.

This conduct was to be expected as lawmakers met in conference committees, made up of key House and Senate members, to work out differences in legislation passed by the two chambers.

But by late afternoon, most of the groups were not gathered to hammer out legislative matters, but to watch Mississippi’s State’s 77-69 loss to Syracuse in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament.

In fairness to the legislators, they finished most of their work early, allowing them the opportunity to watch the game. The work they finished gives a good notion of what Mississippi’s general fund budget will be like for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The general fund budget will be close to $2.8 billion with a little less than a $1 million surplus. The entire budget, including federal funds and special funds, such as fees for specific purposes, will be more than $7 billion.

Few harsh words

“This has been the most cooperative session I have been involved in during my 17 years here,” said Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. “The stability of the leadership in the House and Senate is most evident. The cooperation between Speaker (Tim) Ford and Lt. Gov. (Ronnie) Musgrove is most evident.”

For the past several days, the conference committees have worked on what programs would be funded and how much they would receive. The deadline for the conference committees to finish their job was 8 p.m. Saturday.

The full chambers of the House and Senate will meet at 3 p.m. Sunday to start voting on the conference reports. They can approve or reject the agreements or send them back to committee.

Plans are to finish the process as early as Thursday, meaning the session would be concluded for the year, unless legislators come back the following week to attempt to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

“Normally, we would be hours later coming to this point,” McCoy said minutes before the Mississippi State-Syracuse game started. “Then there would be harsh words before we reached an agreement.”

McCoy said there were “almost no harsh words this year.”

Compromise key

While there may have been few harsh words, there were numerous compromises.

For instance:

n The final bond bill for the state’s eight universities and 15 community colleges was changed considerably from what the two house passed earlier in the session.

The Senate had passed $50 million in bonds for the universities and $50 million for the community colleges. The House agreed on the $50 million for universities, but left the community colleges out because they did not request funds earlier enough in the process, House leaders said.

The final bill provides $50 million for construction at the senior colleges and $12.5 million at the community colleges.

n The Legislative pay raise passed earlier by the House was changed to boost expense pay for the 172 members of the Legislature. Under the compromise, legislators would be paid for as many as four trips per months out of session to Jackson on official business. Pay for these trips would consist of round trip mileage and the $83-per-day expense money.

Possible crime package

Sen. Dick Hall, R-Jackson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, praised the crime package that might come out of the legislative session.

“We (conference committee members) passed almost everything, but the (statewide) Youth Court,” he said. “I think we have a commitment from the House leadership to try to do that in the near future.”

The crime package includes additional assistant district attorneys. The 1st District, which includes Lee County and much of Northeast Mississippi, would get three prosecutors. The 1st District and 16th District, which includes West Point, also would get another Circuit Court judge each to hear criminal and civil cases.

The 16th and the 3rd, which includes Oxford, also would get two new assistant district attorneys each.

The conference committees also agreed to place $1 million in a municipal crime-prevention program. This money would be awarded to municipalities in grants for crime-fighting activity.

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