Mississippi lawmakers approve most parts of $5.6B budget

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers passed dozens of bills Saturday as they tried to finish work on a $5.6 billion state budget for the year that begins July 1.

Negotiators agreed on most parts of the fiscal 2013 spending plan but were still working on funding for Medicaid, the government insurance program that covers about one-fifth of the state’s residents. Leaders said they expected an agreement.

However, it was unclear whether House and Senate leaders could work out their differences on a bond package. The state issues bonds as long-term financing for economic development projects and for items such as repairs and renovations to state buildings.

Senate leaders propose a bond package of about $120 million to $130 million, while the House proposes more than three times that amount, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall.

“We’re just trying to be fiscally responsible,” Fillingane said in an interview.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, said the Senate proposal would leave too many needs unmet.

“We will go home without a bond bill before we do what the Senate wants us to do,” Smith declared on the House floor, winning applause from some of his colleagues.

The budget includes spending reductions for most state agencies. Universities would receive roughly the same amount that they’re receiving in the current year, while spending will increase slightly for elementary and secondary schools and community colleges.

The budget also allows about $200 million to be set aside into state reserves, so it can be used during tight budget years in the future.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, unsuccessfully tried to persuade the House to send the K-12 education budget back for more work and more money. The budget is about $250 million short of full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the complex formula that’s designed to make sure each district receives enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. MAEP has been fully funded only two of the past 14 years.

“I had a superintendent call me this week who said, ‘Why don’t you just call it MIEP, Mississippi Inadequate Education Program, if that’s what you’re going to do?’” said Brown, a former House Education Committee chairman.

Brown said it doesn’t make sense to put $200 million into a rainy day fund when MAEP is $250 million short.

The current House Education chairman, Republican Rep. John Moore of Brandon, said sending the K-12 budget back for more work would be useless. He said leaders are committed to rebuilding the reserve funds that have shriveled the past several years.

Most budget bills passed Saturday with little discussion, but some Senate Democrats opposed the secretary of state’s budget, Senate Bill 3007, because it includes $395,000 for anticipated litigation to defend a voter identification law that might be enacted.

In the general election last November, 62 percent of Mississippi voters approved a constitutional amendment to require each voter to show a photo ID at the polls. Legislators this session are considering a bill to put the provisions into law. However, because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination, any election changes must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department. The department has rejected voter ID laws from Texas and South Carolina in recent months.

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, has said Mississippi could try to get a voter ID law approved by a U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., rather than by the Justice Department.

Senate Democrats on Saturday questioned why the state should give $395,000 to Hosemann’s office for litigation when it’s the responsibility of the attorney general to submit election laws for Justice Department clearance.

“I smell a rat,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.

Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, asked why taxpayer money should be spent on defending an issue that many people, including him, oppose.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, replied: “This is representing the state.”

The secretary of state’s budget passed the Senate 28-14, with many Democrats voting no.

Legislators will also meet Sunday. They face a Monday deadline to approve the final versions of budget and revenue bills. The four-month session is scheduled to end in early May.