By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – As legislators prepare to go to conference to hammer out a final budget agreement, it appears proposals passed by the House and Senate are not that different.
Each chamber has now passed its budget proposal. In theory, one house could accept the budget proposal of the other. But that has not occurred in recent memory.
What is more likely is that before Friday each side will vote to go to conference where the two Appropriations committee chairmen – Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, in the House and Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, in the Senate – and other legislative leaders will try to reach a budget accord before the May 6 scheduled end of the session.
Based on what each chamber has passed, it should not be difficult to reach that accord. The House has passed a $5.58 billion general fund budget compared to $5.56 billion for the Senate.
“We are very close,” Frierson said.
“Once we agree on the amount of revenue, we can start conforming on individual lines of the budget,” he said.
A key difference is that the House budget includes $48 million needed to meet the state’s obligation – under existing law – to the Public Employees’ Retirement System. Under state law, the PERS Board has the authority to take the funds that it determines are needed to keep the system solvent.
So, if the funds are not included in the budget, it would be a $48 million cut to the agencies. Almost half of the $48 million is needed for education – primarily local school teachers and other local personnel. The House budget funds kindergarten through 12th grade education at $2.27 billion.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, an education advocacy group, says the House proposal for public education, factoring in the rising cost of retirement, is $251 million short of full funding while the Senate plan is $255 million short. That’s based on the statutory formula for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves acknowledged he was surprised by how close the two chambers are.
“The budget process is never easy,” Reeves said. “But it is good to see the priorities in the Senate are close to those in the House.” He said he is hopeful that will result in a quick and non-contentious conference process.
The Senate plan provides essentially level funding for universities while the House proposal provides $713.4 million – about $11 million more. The House plan provides about $6 million more for community colleges
A key difference is the Senate plan provides $425 million for debt service – about $30 million more than the House proposal.