House GOP blocks plan for recess

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – House Republicans on Tuesday again blocked efforts of the legislative leadership to recess the 2010 regular session for 30 days to see if the state gets extra stimulus money to plug into the cash-strapped budget.
The plan to recess at the end of the week was agreed to by the Democratic House leadership and the Republican Senate leaders. But the House has been unable to garner the two-thirds majority to put the plan into effect.
On Tuesday, a day after the House Rules Committee blocked the recess, the plan received a 76-45 majority in the full chamber, but that was five votes short of the two-thirds supermajority it needed. Most of the 48 Republicans voted against the plan, as did two Democrats.
Under the plan, the Legislature still would be bound to the 90-day regular session, but the days would not be consecutive.
“This certainly does not cost a dime,” said House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stinger, D-Montrose.
But House Republicans said they wanted the process completed on time. They contended that the additional $187 million in stimulus funds could be budgeted on the condition that Congress finally approves the extra money.
Or, said Rep. Jessica Upshaw, R-Diamondhead, Gov. Haley Barbour could call a special session if the state received the money.
But special sessions cost an additional $13,125 per day in legislative pay. Legislators do not receive extra pay even if their regular sessions run over.
With or without the additional $187 million in federal funds, legislators face a tough budgeting task because of the unprecedented drop in state tax collections.
Also on Tuesday, about 250 educators and parents rallied at the Capitol for education funding.
The heads of the three education entities – Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds, Community Colleges Executive Director Eric Clark and Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham – appeared together at the rally to stress the importance of funding all levels of education.
All three said they already are dealing with teachers and faculty being laid off.
At the rally, DeSoto County Superintendent Milton Kuykendall, who is head of the state’s superintendent association, predicted massive layoffs of teachers and other staff at local school districts that would economically ravage communities and “it will hurt our kids … I am speaking strictly from the heart. We need full funding. We need as close to full funding as we can get.”
Burnham pointed out that teachers are dealing with tough new state assessment standards while facing cuts in state funding and the possibility of losing their jobs.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, received the loudest applause at the rally as he used an eraser board to outline abut $750 million in reserve funds that could be used to shore up education.
“Why on earth are we acting like we are flat broke?” Bryan asked.
If the state does get the additional $187 million in federal funds, House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said about $90 million or more of that could be directed toward education.
While most state officials seem fairly certain they will receive the federal funds, Stringer said it is unwise to budget the money until it is actually approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said they could be budgeted by the state on the condition they are received from the federal government.
But Brown said funds could not be conditionally appropriated because local school boards could not issue contracts to teachers on the condition they receive the funds.
It is not clear what will happen next in the budgeting process. House and Senate leaders face a deadline tonight to agree on a budget and a deadline of Friday night to pass it.
It seems certain that legislators will meet neither of those deadlines, and at some point a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate will have to agree on a rules suspension to change the legislative deadlines.
“Right now I am operating on the assumption we will get a budget passed by Monday,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. Monday is the final day to pass a budget without having to extend the regular session to meeting constitutional mandates. The session is scheduled to end this first weekend in April.
Asked if he has crafted a budget based on the latest downward revenue forecasts and without the $187 million in federal stimulus funds, Nunnelee paused and said, “I can tell you it doesn’t look pretty.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.