Deadlocked Legislature likely to miss deadline

JACKSON – With no agreement in sight to fund state government past July 1, the Legislature has to make some decisions on how to proceed.
The 2009 session ends Wednesday unless it is extended by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. But more importantly, unless the session is extended, the Legislature faces a deadline of midnight today to pass bills to fund all aspects of state government, including public education, highway construction and public health.
The state Constitution requires the Legislature to adopt a budget at least five days before the final day of the session. That five-day deadline is midnight.
The impasse on the budget “is further apart today than it was yesterday,” Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said late Thursday.
With that in mind, it is not likely the Legislature can get a budget passed by midnight even if an agreement is reached. It will take time for staff to prepare the budget bills and have them printed after an agreement is reached.
That, members say, leaves the Legislature two options: extend the current session or let the session adjourn and be called back by Gov. Haley Barbour in special session to work on a budget.
A special session will cost close to $20,000 more per day than the current regular session, which was supposed to have ended in early April but was extended because of the inability to agree on a budget.
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, wants to remain in regular session to avoid the added expense of a special session.
But Bryant said, “Unless we have an agreement on a budget, unless we can come to the Senate and say we have an agreement, we don’t have the votes” to extend the current session.
That means the session would automatically end at midnight Wednesday, leaving Barbour no other choice but to call members back in special session.
Bryant said the governor might want to add some items to the special session agenda that currently are not being considered in regular session, such as a tax on small cigarette manufacturers that did not participate in the settlement of the lawsuit the state filed against major cigarette makers in the 1990s and a tax increase on smokeless tobacco products.
At different times Thursday, key House and Senate leaders and Barbour met behind closed doors to try to hash out a budget agreement. They did little in public.
One of the major stumbling blocks continues to be whether to increase the tax on hospitals to plug budget holes.
The tax has been “taken off the table” several times during lengthy negotiations that date back to early April, but it continues to resurface.
Barbour and the Senate leaders favor a $90 million tax. House leaders have agreed to a smaller tax increase with assurances that the state will not cut services to hospitals for the services they render to Medicaid recipients.
While Bryant’s leadership team has advocated the tax increase, he said he is not crazy about it.
“I wish we could do it without it,” Bryant said “I am not a big fan of raising taxes in any situation.”
McCoy said he is favors a budget with no hospital tax, but would agree to a smaller one.
“We can’t pass a $90 million hospital tax in the House,” McCoy said. “They can’t in the Senate either.
“I have small hospitals in my area that can’t stand that. Many other members feel the same way. We know the effects this will have on hospitals and the patients who go there.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal