Legislature strikes deal on budget

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – House and Senate leaders broke a weeklong impasse Wednesday night and reached agreement on a $5.5 billion budget to fund state government.
In recent days, the Democratic House leadership and the Republican leadership of the Senate, aligned with Gov. Haley Barbour, have been at odds over the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The process has been especially difficult because of the still sluggish economy slowing tax collections and because of the loss of about $400 million in federal stimulus funds that had plugged previous budget holes.
Now, the Legislature’s leaders will have to extend the session to be able to take up and pass the budget. The session is scheduled to end this weekend, but House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said the plan is to leave before this weekend and return Monday to pass the budget.
“It is our hope to get it passed as soon as we can,” Stringer said.
It will take a day or two to prepare the more than 50 budget bills to be presented to the full House and Senate.
Stringer and his Senate counterpart, Doug Davis, R-Hernardo, announced the agreement around 10 p.m. Wednesday.
When asked what broke the stalemate, Davis said, “I don’t know if it was any one thing… We maintained dialogue, talking almost every day.”
The primary issues preventing an earlier agreement were funding for education, mental health and homestead exemption reimbursements to local governments to help hold down property taxes.
Compromises were reached in all three areas.
The House leadership, and indeed a majority of both chambers, had supported level funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education. Barbour and the Senate leadership had proposed using $65 million in federal funds provided to the schools for the current year to reach the level funding level for the upcoming budget year.
In the end, the $65 million will not be used, and education is $15 million less than level funding.
The Department of Mental Health will receive $249 million.
Ed LeGrand, executive director of the agency, said the agreed-to-amount will ensure the 15 community mental health centers remain in operation.
The state’s 15 community colleges will receive level funding. Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, said funding for the eight public universities would be cut 1.5 percent.