By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – This past November, Gov. Haley Barbour shook up state government with controversial proposals to consolidate school districts, merge universities and close mental health hospitals.
In his State of the State speech Monday night during a joint legislative session and to a live television audience, the governor did not talk about those legislative proposals. Instead, he focused on the state’s dire budget situation.
Barbour, in a 35-minute speech interrupted numerous times by applause, did try to balance the negative with some positive, highlighting recent success in jobs recruitment and the state’s strong energy sector. He also ended by promising better days ahead.
He said, “2010 is the year we will help lead American out of this recession — the year when we pick up where we left off before this recession sidetracked our growing economy and rising incomes. … My advice to you as we close — Mississippi, believe in it.”
The governor also told legislators in these tough times, “I’m committed to working with you.”
Much of the governor’s focus was on his desire for legislators to give him more flexibility to make budget cuts to deal with a shortfall of between $340 million and $450 million in the budget for the current fiscal year. The Senate already has given him the authority in the still young 2010 session.
But the House has not.
Without that authority, Barbour said will be forced to make across-the-board cuts that will result in between 3,400 and 4,000 inmates being released early.
“Convicts, who are not approved for parole, have not gone through pre-release preparation or training and for whom there are very, very few jobs,” Barbour said.
“I cannot believe anyone watching this speech on TV or hearing it on the radio would vote to turn lose 3,400 to 4,000 inmates … That is the most glaring reason the Senate bill needs to be passed.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, countered, “The governor has $61 million in stimulus funds at his discretion and can take $50 million out of the rainy day fund right now. If he lets them (inmates) out, it will be on his watch.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, argued that there are about $500 million in reserve funds than an be used to offset any additional cuts. Barbour already has cut $225 million.
“If he chooses to make those cuts, it is a policy decision he chose to make,” Bryan said.
During his speech, Barbour said that the $260 million rainy day fund must be preserved for the next three years, which he said would all be rife with budget woes.
He did say he would agree, as both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed, to spend down the state’s $200 million tobacco trust fund, but over a four-year period and none for this year.
“I think he was blatantly honest about the state of the state,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn. “We are going to have to make some hard choices.”
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate and presided over Monday’s joint session, said, amp”Gov. Barbour stressed the importance for the rainy day fund to last us three more years. He can continue to count on me to do everything in my power to ensure that this money is used wisely and not reckless spent all at once.
Gov. Haley Barbour’s State of State speech highlights:
– Asked House to pass Senate proposal to give him more authority to cut state budget because revenue is below projections.
– Said only $78 million should be expended from $260 million rainy day fund this legislative session. None of that should be spent for shortfall in current budget year, but instead in upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
– Agreed to proposal to spend down Tobacco Trust Fund.
– Opposed proposal of House and Senate leaders for a tax amnesty program to try to raise additional funds.
– Noted state’s energy sector and recent successful jobs recruitment efforts.
Governor focuses on budget woes, promises better days ahead