House: Barbour's travels slow budget talks

JACKSON – House leaders say Gov. Haley Barbour’s late involvement in budget negotiations makes it difficult to meet Saturday night’s legislative deadline to have an agreement crafted with their Senate counterparts.
House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, and his top lieutenant, Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Tuesday they fear that the budget process is in jeopardy because of Barbour’s frequent out-of-state trips, apparently in advance of a presidential bid.
Stringer said that before Barbour intervened in the budget talks, he had agreed with Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, about the amount of revenue available to appropriate and had agreed on 75 percent or more of where that money would be spent.
But in a letter sent out late Monday, the governor said the revenue agreement spends too much one-time money on recurring expenses.
The agreement, according to Barbour and Stringer, was for $5.55 billion to be spent to fund the general fund, including education, health care and public safety.
“Mississippi cannot afford for its leaders to spend today and slash and tax tomorrow,” Barbour wrote.
Similar complaints about Barbour’s absences have been aired in past years, but he has maintained that even while traveling, he stays involved with state business.
Referring to a recent news article reporting Barbour was out of state about half of last year, Brown said, “The half of year he chooses to be here could involve the budget process.”
Barbour is scheduled to meet with legislative budget leaders today.
Davis said he has been in contact with Barbour regularly.
“I am still optimistic and still working under the assumption we can get this done on time,” Davis said. “I think we are very close.”
In the letter, Barbour complained that House and Senate leaders were spending $58 million more for the coming year than is being spent this year and were leaving only $155 million in reserves.
Stringer said the potential agreement between House and Senate leaders would leave more than $200 million in reserves – more than Barbour left in reserves in his original budget proposal released last fall.
The key in the coming days will center on funding for education and mental health.
Brown said education could not afford any more cuts. He said the state budget has been cut more than $500 million in the past five years and $300 million of those cuts have come in education.
“We have laid off 2,000 people in the K-12 system,” he said.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal