Legislators hope for on-time finish

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – If everything goes as plans, legislators will return on April 20, pass a budget and rightfully proclaim that they finished their work in the constitutionally allotted 90 days.
The legislative session was scheduled to end this weekend. But legislators voted to finish nearly all items except the budget, leave early and return on April 20 to work on funding state government, including education.
The recess started this past weekend.
The Legislature, with a two-thirds vote of each chamber, can lengthen the session – and theoretically remain in session all year if lawmakers continue to vote to extend it.
But after last year, when the Legislature passed a budget only a few hours before the new fiscal year began on July 1, members of both parties are striving to finish this year in their allotted 90 days. They fear the political backlash of another extended budget stalemate.
That is why legislators go to such great lengths to point out that they are far from a stalemate now. In addition to recessing Saturday, a full week before the scheduled end of the session, they also missed four Fridays earlier this session – three because of weather and one because they had finished their work early for the week.
In other words, legislators have saved days early in the year that they can use when they return April 20 to complete what is expected to be a difficult task of putting together a budget.
When the legislators are not in town, they do not receive per diem for that day.
“Hopefully, we can take one or two days when we get back” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate.
Even if it takes more than a couple of days, legislators still can be finished in the allotted 90 days.
“This session has not been easy, but it never will be in this difficult financial time,” Bryant said recently. “I think we have come so far in agreeing on the revenue numbers.”
Before adjourning, House and Senate leaders agreed on the amount of money that will be available to appropriate.
That amount of money – $5.5 billion – is roughly the same amount that state agencies had to spend this year after Gov. Haley Barbour made nearly $500 million in budget cuts after an unprecedented drop in state tax collections.
Legislators are hoping that when they come back on April 20, they also will have an additional $187 million in federal stimulus funds. The reason legislators agreed to recess is to wait to see if the federal Congress approves the additional stimulus funds.
They will face a few other outstanding issues.
Lawmakers will have to deal with several local and private bills, including proposals to increase taxes on hotels and motels in Fulton and Byhalia.
The Senate also will have a proposal to consider from the House to take $14 million out of reserve funds for a Medicaid deficit. Barbour’s Division of Medicaid has announced that it plans to deal with the deficit by cutting reimbursement rates to health care providers, such as doctors and nursing homes.
“Until the Legislature has had an opportunity to restore the $14 million to Medicaid … I believe the governor should delay those cuts,” said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg.
But Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he has no intention of dealing with legislation to restore the funds.
“We have closed the books on 2010,” Nunnelee said, referring to the current fiscal year ending June 30. “We need to focus on 2011.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.