By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – When it comes to budget negotiations between House and Senate leaders, for better or worse, there is always an unseen but powerful force in the room.
That force is Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
It was evident last year when the Legislature battled until literally the final day of the fiscal year to pass a budget for the new year.
At one point last year, House and Senate leaders assigned by the speaker and lieutenant governor announced they had reached agreement on the size of a hospital tax increase, which was key to a budget compromise.
When Barbour said the increase was not big enough, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant sided with Barbour, and negotiators were forced to start again.
Barbour’s influence on the current negotiations over restoring a portion of the $458.65 million that he cut from the budget this fiscal year is another example of his enormous influence.
Barbour vetoed one proposal to spend $79 million from the state’s more than $500 million in reserve funds to offset some of the cuts.
The governor gave essentially two reasons for vetoing the legislation.
The first reason is that it spent too much of the state’s reserves and would “virtually guarantee higher taxes within a few years.”
Sen. Alan Nunnelee, Senate Appropriations Chair, and Bryant echoed his comments as they worked to uphold the governor’s veto by a surprisingly narrow margin.
Nunnelee and Bryant went further and said they believe the strategy of those opposing the governor’s veto was to deplete the state’s reserve funds and force a tax increase in coming years.
Yet, in negotiations, Nunnelee and the other Senate leaders, with the blessing of Barbour and Bryant, advocate spending $3 million more than the amount in the legislation vetoed by Barbour and sustained in the Senate.
The difference, they would argue, is that $14 million they want to spend comes from the federal government for a Medicaid overpayment and not from the state’s established reserve funds, such as the rainy day fund.
But that $14 million could be socked away and used as a reserve fund to help avoid the tax increase that Barbour and his Senate allies are predicting might occur if a bill spending $79 million were to become law.
Instead, they are advocating spending $82 million.
The second reason the governor gave for vetoing the legislation is that it does not spend enough on prisons.
He wants $16 million of the $29 million he cut from prisons restored by the Legislature.
The bill he vetoed restored $1 million. When the House and Senate were offered amendments restoring $16 million, they were rejected.
In the Senate, even Nunnelee, who offered the proposal, voted against it.
Yet, in negotiations, Nunnelee insists that the governor get his full $16 million for prisons.
The House negotiators, led by Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, have agreed to restore $10 million for Corrections.
Stringer said a portion of the funds cut from the community colleges and mental health also should be restored. Nunnelee’s proposal does not provide those entities any funding.
“It’s not that they don’t have needs,” Nunnelee said. “We want to make sure Corrections has the money it needs to house prisoners.”
Stringer countered, “The House is upset I have agreed to $10 million. I don’t know if I can pass it.”
Stringer pointed out that negotiations between House and Senate leaders normally revolve around what has been passed by the two chambers.
The most the House has passed for prisons is $1 million, he said, and the most the Senate has passed is $16 million.
Yet, Stringer said he has agreed to $10 million against both chambers’ wishes. Nunnelee countered that the negotiators had to take into account not only both chambers, but also the governor’s wishes.
Therein lies the power and influence of the governor. If Nunnelee and Bryant are unwilling to buck the governor on budget issues, legislators will not be able to override his veto. Thus, it makes no sense for the two leaders to agree to a position Barbour opposes.
Yet if, for instance, had Nunnelee and Bryant thrown their considerable weight in the Senate behind overriding the governor’s veto of the first budget restoration bill, the outcome might have been different.
After all, the Senate already was within four votes of the override even with Nunnelee and Bryant supporting the governor.
It is hard to imagine the Senate overriding the governor on budget issues as long as he has the backing of Nunnelee and Bryant.
That is why the governor’s influence is so great. It also is why it is not a sure thing that a compromise will emerge on a new budget restoration plan.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.