OPINION: Some Senate Republicans balk at Barbour's budget directives

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A “risin’ up” occurred last week in the Mississippi Senate at the expense of Gov. Haley Barbour.
A majority of the Senate said, contrary to the wishes of the leadership and the governor, that it wanted a say in restoring a portion of the money cut from budgets by the governor. Barbour has slashed the state budget for the current fiscal year a whopping $458 million – 8.7 percent – because tax collections have not met projections.
Before last week’s vote, it already was a foregone conclusion that a portion of the funds cut by Barbour would be restored. Even the governor had acknowledged that.
But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, wanted to go to a conference committee to negotiate with House leaders without his chamber taking a stand – by a vote on the floor – on which budgets to restore.
That way Nunnelee would have more leeway during negotiations with his House counterparts. Theoretically, negotiators are supposed to try to uphold the position taken by their chamber. If a chamber doesn’t have a position, that makes it easier for the negotiator to negotiate not the chamber’s position, but his or her position and in the case of the Senate leadership, that often means the governor’s position.
At any rate, it appeared Nunnelee was going to get to conference without being tied down by a position from his chamber. But that all began to change Thursday.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, offered an amendment to take $50 million from the tobacco trust fund and place roughly half of that in higher education and the rest in kindergarten through 12th grade. Then, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, offered a substitute amendment to place $45 million of the $50 million in K-12. The 26 Democrats in the chamber decided the Hopson amendment was to their liking. It passed with nine of the chamber’s 25 Republicans voting with the Democrats.
Various sources say Barbour was not pleased with his Republican colleagues who voted for the amendment and let them know about it in an emphatic way.
The next day, Nunnelee tried to undo some of the perceived damage by offering a substitute for the Hopson proposal. But by the time everything was said and done, the Senate had voted to take an additional $58 million out of the tobacco trust fund and to restore $28 million cut from K-12. That was less than the Hopson plan, but more than Blount originally proposed. And to top it off, funds were partially restored to other budgets, including higher education.
Last week’s vote was probably the most stunning defeat on budget issues Barbour has suffered in the Senate where for six years his positions have been viewed as sacrosanct. Last week’s vote does not spell the end to Barbour’s influence in the Senate, but it may spell a serious tempering of that influence.
After the vote, the governor was careful not to publicly criticize the Senate. Instead, he complained that the plan passed by the House does not restore funds to the Department of Corrections. The plan passed by the Senate restores only $4 million of the $28 million he cut from Corrections. Nunnelee had proposed restoring $16 million to Corrections, but Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, offered an amendment to put $12 million of that $16 million in K-12 education. It passed 44-2 with even Nunnelee voting for it.
What Nunnelee and the rest of the Senate leadership realized is that it is difficult to take the position of funding prisons at the expense of education. Nunnelee, after all, is running for Congress in the 1st District. He would have a difficult time defending that position as would Senate Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, who is running for lieutenant governor.
Some question why Corrections cannot absorb the same cuts as other agencies. Barbour says inmates must be released if cuts are made and guards are laid off. Couldn’t the same logic be applied to other agencies? If staff at the Department of Mental Health are laid off, wouldn’t patients in that agency’s care have to be released, asked members of the House leadership? And in some instances, couldn’t those patients be as dangerous or more dangerous to themselves or society than the prisoners in the custody of the Department of Corrections?
The governor has made it difficult for his chief allies in the Senate to defend that position.
After all, in his January State of the State speech, Barbour said he would have to release 4,000 inmates if the House did not follow the lead of the Senate and give him more flexibility to make budget cuts when revenue does not meet projections. When the House refused to give him that flexibility, he said he would avoid releasing inmates by using stimulus funds at his discretion to offset budget cuts.
All in all, it made for a week that was not the best legislatively speaking for the governor. But he has had a bunch of good ones and most likely will have some more before his tenure ends in January 2012.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau reporter in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.