Leaders can’t agree on budget proposal

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – House and Senate leaders are about $211 million apart in their effort to develop a state budget proposal for the 2011 Legislature.
The 14-member Legislative Budget Committee, unable to agree on a proposal after three days of meeting this week, will return Wednesday morning.
“We are not at an impasse, and we don’t anticipate one,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi.
But this week’s meetings of the Budget Committee highlight the difficulty the Legislature will face during the 2011 session in trying to replace more than $700 million in federal stimulus funds and other sources of one-time money.
In order to reach agreement, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said the Budget Committee members must first reach a consensus on the money available to spend. Among the key differences:
n The House members want to spend $100 million of the state’s $177 million Rainy Day Fund – $25 million more than the Senate members want to spend.
n The House wants to expend $60 million from various idle fund cash balances. The Senate members reject that proposal.
n The House wants to spend $52 million more from a reserve fund left over from Hurricane Katrina than Senate members want to spend. Apparently, a point of contention is how much is actually left in the fund and is available to spend.
n The Senate wants to count $65 million local school districts received from the federal government to offset state budget cuts as part of the state funds available to spend.
This past summer, Congress passed legislation to help local school districts that have been struggling with a downfall in revenue during the current economic woes. Mississippi received about $98 million that went directly to the local school districts.
Bryant said the state education officials told him about $65 million of that money was left. But others questioned how the state Department of Education would know the amount of money that the local school districts had left.
House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, also questioned how the funds could be used to offset state appropriations since some school districts might have spent all of their funds while others might have been able to save all of their money.
It would thus be impossible, Brown said, to determine how to re-divvy the federal funds.
Bryant said he did not necessarily want to do that, but said the federal money “should be part of the policy discussion.”
The Senate’s early proposal is to cut all agencies, with a few exceptions, by 2 percent. That would mean a $44 million cut for education on top of the more than $250 million cut local school districts sustained for the current fiscal year, Brown said.
The House proposal also makes dramatic cuts, Brown said, but restores some funds in certain areas, including mental health and education.
Bryant said the Senate also wants to restore some of the funds in the areas proposed by the House members on the Budget Committee, but first must agree on what revenue is available.

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