Miss. lawmakers turn their attention to budgeting

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Amid a sharp revenue decline, Mississippi lawmakers are juggling budgets for this year and next.

On Wednesday, the House and Senate are scheduled to consider the first draft of plans to pay for state government during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

On Thursday, the Senate is expected to consider a House plan to restore some of the money that has been cut from the budget for the year that ends June 30.

Mississippi revenues have fallen short of expectations 17 months in a row, and Gov. Haley Barbour has cut $458.5 million from what started last summer as a nearly $6 billion state budget.

The House voted last week to use about $79 million from the state’s financial reserves to restore some of the cuts, with most of the money directed to education.

Several lawmakers said it’s unclear whether there are enough votes to pass the budget restoration in the Senate, which normally has 52 members.

A special election was being held Tuesday to fill a vacant seat in southwestern Mississippi. If all 52 seats are filled by Thursday, passing the budget restoration would take at least 27 votes.

Overriding a possible veto by the governor would take at least 35 votes. Barbour has said Mississippi needs to make its financial reserves last at least three more years because of uncertainty about when the economy might recover.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Tuesday that even if the state spends the $79 million, it would still have about $500 million in reserves. He said Democrats and Republicans have been trying to restore money to education and other programs.

“It’s very difficult to overemphasize how important this is, that this is a bipartisan effort at reaching a solution,” Bryan said.

Legislators are about halfway through their three-month session, and this is normally the time for them to start passing the first round of bills to set state spending for the coming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, the House is expected to pass bills to fund half of the state agencies starting July 1, and the Senate is expected to pass bills to fund the other half. The two chambers will swap bills for more work in the next few weeks.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said experts predict a bleak revenue picture for the coming year.

“Everything’s going to be cut,” Stringer said.

Lawmakers are scheduled by early April to wrap up the budget for the coming year — but there’s no guarantee they’ll finish on time. They missed their deadlines last year, and ended up passing most of the budget in the final hours before the fiscal year began.

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