Legislative leadership talk of break before finishing work

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Legislative leaders are considering the possibility of taking a break and returning later to try to reach a budget agreement for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Earlier this month, both House and Senate leaders said they planned to finish their budget work by the scheduled end of the 2010 regular session in early April.
But Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said late Friday there is a growing feeling among the leadership of both chambers that it might be best to take a short break and come back.
The issue apparently was discussed Friday in a meeting involving Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and House and Senate budget leaders.
McCoy said the Legislature most likely will decide early next week whether to take a hiatus. It would allow lawmakers to see if Congress passes legislation to continue the portion of the stimulus package that provides the states an enhanced Medicaid match.
That could mean an extra $185 million or more for Mississippi.
State Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the key would be to finish all work except the budget by the end of next week and then take a break.
Then legislators could come back just to work on the budget and still finish within 90 days – just not in consecutive days.
“Right now there is a growing possibility – even a probability – that we will take a short break and come back,” McCoy said.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, earlier this week advocated taking the break to wait for Congress to act.
While it is fairly certain Congress will provide states extra Medicaid funds, McCoy said, legislative leaders do not feel comfortable including the money in the state budget until it is passed and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“I would not be opposed to delaying this for 30 days, but we can’t delay it indefinitely waiting for Congress to act,” Nunnelee said.
The Legislature and Gov. Haley Barbour are grappling with tough budget issues caused by a historical slowdown in state collections.
It became obvious Wednesday that passing a budget would be difficult since the legislative leadership could not even decide on how much money to appropriate for the upcoming fiscal year.
Many agencies are talking of furloughing or laying off state employees. School districts are doing the same.
The federal Medicaid funds would provide some relief.
Last year the Legislature took a break to determine how federal stimulus funds could be plugged into the state budget. A budget agreement was not ultimately reached until hours before the new fiscal year began July 1.

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