House, Senate reach budget accord

JACKSON – Late on a Father’s Day Sunday, House and Senate negotiators announced they had reached agreement on a budget to fund Mississippi government for the fiscal year starting July 1.
“We have a budget that balances that the House and Senate are in agreement on,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
The question now is whether Gov. Haley Barbour accepts the budget agreement and calls the Legislature back in special session to vote on it. If not, the very real possibility exists that a budget will not be passed before the new fiscal year begins and, at this point, no one seems to have a firm grasp of what would happen then.
The state Transportation Commission already is in the process of terminating about $500 million in highway construction projects.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said it will take about five days once the Legislature is back in session to go through the steps of passing the budget. Then the governor would have to sign it in to law.
“We are cutting it down to the wire,” said Stringer, who added, “I guess it really is in the governor’s court. If he accepts it, he will call us back.”
Nunnelee said he had been in contact with Barbour about the agreement because he knew only the governor could call a special session. Last week, Barbour said he would call the Legislature back when there was a deal that involved him as well as House and Senate leaders.
Barbour could not be reached for comment Sunday night.
“We have a reached agreement on revenue and spending,” Nunnelee said. “…Some technical issues – all related to Medicaid – remain. I don’t know whether the governor is ready to call us back.”
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate said, “We are continuing our work to fund Medicaid at a reasonable amount. This is the last step in completing the budget process before the end of the fiscal year.”
One sticking point has been Barbour’s and the Republican Senate leadership’s support of a $90 million tax increase for hospitals. The budget agreement includes a $60 million hospital tax increase that was agree to late Saturday by House and Senate negotiators. Part of the overall budget negotiations include assurances for the hospitals that if their taxes are increased their payments for treating Medicaid patients will not be cut.
The agreement does include other elements support by Barbour, such as setting aside $60 million for the 2010 Legislature to appropriate. Barbour has said that budget year is expected to be even more difficult than the current one.
The budget deal also fully funds education for the coming fiscal year from the kindergarten through the university level.
Several other agencies, though, will be cut. Details about those cuts were not available late Sunday, but negotiators said they did not think there would be any layoffs of state employees.
The normal legislative deadline for the enactment of a budget was early April. But budget negotiations have been especially difficult because of a sizable slowdown in state tax collections – $400 for the current year and another anticipated $400 drop next year. To offset that drop in tax collections, the state is receiving more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds – designed to be spent over about a two and one-half year period.
But issues related to how those funds could be spent also have bogged down negotiations.

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

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal