Mississippi lawmakers prepare for budget negotiations

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Leading Mississippi lawmakers are about to embark on their final round of talks to set a $5.6 billion budget for the coming year.

The chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees said Wednesday they’re close to agreement on most big-ticket items, including education.

Negotiators face an April 28 deadline agree on detailed spending for everything from schools to highways to agriculture programs. Once they reach final deals, they’ll file dozens of budget bills. Then, the full House and Senate face an April 30 deadline to adopt those bills.

The state’s 2013 fiscal year begins July 1.

The money minders said they’re just a few million dollars apart on funding for public health.

“That seems to be what this session of legislature appropriations is boiling down to, is public health issues and funding, mostly Medicaid,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville.

Frierson said legislators are trying to find an additional $31 million for the coming year for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled. He said they’re also trying to fill a $14.8 million budget gap for the University of Mississippi Medical Center for the current fiscal year ending June 30. The shortfall is for the medical center’s portion of Medicaid funding.

At the end of February, Mississippi’s Medicaid program enrolled just over 640,000 people, or about 21 percent of the state’s residents.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said setting the Medicaid budget is tricky every year because officials use their best estimates of how many Medicaid patients will be ill and how many will need certain types of medical procedures.

“Medicaid is such a moving target,” Clarke said Wednesday. “That’s what makes it hard to figure out.”

The budget-writing process started months ago, with state agency directors presenting their initial requests in September to lame-duck members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Democrats lost the House majority in the November general election and Republicans now control both chambers for the first time since Reconstruction.

Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, said House Democrats will monitor the final budget negotiations, even if fewer of them will be directly involved in those talks than they were in the past few years.

“We’ll be really, really interested and watching very closely when it comes to education and it comes to mental health,” Moak said. “And even libraries. They had such a huge disparity, huge cut in the Republican budget. We’ll be particularly watching those three items.”

Clarke and Frierson said they expect the state to spend roughly $24 million to $27 million more on elementary and secondary education in the coming year, compared to this year. They said that’s still more than $250 million short of full funding under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and is a complex formula designed to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, providing extra money for districts with higher percentages of poor students. The formula has been fully funded only twice, in the election-year legislative sessions of 2003 and 2007.

Frierson said he expects lawmakers to fully fund the state Department of Health’s request of $2.5 million for AIDS treatment. Officials said without the money, Mississippi will lose $5 million in federal funding for AIDS patients.

“It’s one of those that you don’t want to miss out on, especially on something as important as that is because that medicine is very expensive for people who are fighting the disease,” he said.