Law passed to expend federal funds apparently has loophole

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In May, the Legislature passed and Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law legislation that detailed how anticipated federal funds would be disbursed during the upcoming fiscal year, which started July 1.
Yet, the Republican governor announced last week that about $125 million in those federal funds, approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in August, would be saved for the upcoming fiscal year.
Apparently, the state bill does not say what legislators were told it said.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, explained that the legislation said the state fiscal office “shall” transfer to certain agencies not more than a specified amount of money.
The legislation does not specify a minimum amount, but only a maximum amount the state fiscal officer cannot exceed.
Brown said Barbour’s attorneys have interpreted that to mean that no amount must be expended.
“Our attorneys agreed with him,” Brown conceded. “But that was not the legislative intent.”
Barbour sent out a statement last week saying the legislative leaders had reached agreement with him to save the funds for the following year.
“There was no agreement,” Brown said. “We told him we would not fight him” since the local school districts were receiving federal funds from another pot of money that can be spent this year.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, enthusiastically supported Barbour’s decision.
“As I have stated in the past, moving money forward is one of the principles we have continued to push for in the Senate in these tough economic times. I agree with the governor that FY 2012 will be our most challenging budget year so far,” Bryant said.
But state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said, “the governor and a handful of legislators had broken faith” with the full Legislature and the state agencies that were promised the money if Congress approved it.
Bryan was particularly critical of the House Democratic leadership who at least acquiesced to Barbour’s plan.
House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said, that based on the way the legislation is written, the choice is the governor’s.
But Stringer, like Brown, said that the local school districts will not be hurt by the decision because they will have another source of federal money, totaling $98 million, to replace the funds that are being saved until the next fiscal year.
The local school districts were supposed to receive about $82 million from the pot of money Barbour is saving.
Stringer added he agrees with Barbour that the upcoming fiscal year will be especially difficult because of the loss of $383.2 million in federal stimulus funds.
“I want to save everything we can to appropriate in 2012,” which starts in July, Stringer said.
But Bryan said some agencies, such as higher education, are making cuts now that could be helped by receiving the federal funds promised to them in May by the governor and the Legislature.