OPINION: Watch for thaw in today's legislative budget news

JACKSON – Mississippians can witness our own small version of detente today when House and Senate leaders who serve on the Legislative Budget Committee meet in public to adopt their budget proposal for the upcoming 2010 session.
Detente, of course, means a lessening of tensions, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary. Many of us looming near or above the half century mark grew up hearing about detente as it related to the U.S. dealings with the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
After the 2009 session of the Mississippi Legislature, perhaps a little detente – thaw in relations – is needed in the halls of the state Capitol.
The agreement that will be reached today might at least be a small indication of that thaw.
Of course, everyone remembers that the House and Senate – because of disagreements – did not finally adopt a budget in 2009 until literally minutes before the new budget year began at midnight July 1.
The very real possibility existed during the 2009 session that most of state government would shut down on July 1 because of those tensions – that icy relationship – that existed between the House and Senate leaders leading to the difficulty in reaching a budget agreement.
No one is sure what would have happened on July 1 if the the Legislature had not been able to finally agree on a budget in the final hours.
A repeat of that scenario during the 2010 session is definitely not far-fetched. And it is not far-fetched to believe that the new fiscal year could come on July 1, 2010, without a budget agreement.
After all , most everyone agrees that the 2010 session will be a difficult one as it relates to passing a budget – perhaps the most difficult in recent memory. Tough budget years usually result in an escalation of tension, not a lessening.
No doubt, the session will be difficult. There is not enough money – thanks to an unprecedented-in-recent-memory drop in state tax collections. There will be pain and suffering in all areas – education, health care, public safety.
But the fact that the Senate members of the Legislative Budget Committee, led by Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and including Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and the House members, led by Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and including Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, can agree on a budget proposal provides hope that the 2010 session might not be as contentious as some believe it will be.
The 14 people who serve on the Budget Committee play a key role in developing the budget that is eventually voted on by the House and Senate.
In the past, the plan approved by the Budget Committee before the start of the session has been viewed as a sort of starting point for the two legislative chambers in developing a budget.
In would seem to make sense to assume that if House and Senate leaders on the budget committee can agree now, then they will be able to agree in March. And if they can agree, then a majority of the two chambers can likewise agree on the final, real budget.
There is one big difference – Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
Barbour does not get involved – to any extent – in the negotiations by members of the Budget Committee in the fall on the proposal they are developing
But it is the safest best in town to wager that the governor will be involved in March when House and Senate leaders begin the task of trying to hammer out a final agreement.
And if the past six legislative sessions are any indication, the Senate leadership will not reach agreement if Barbour is not on board with at least tacit approval. Some people think that is a good thing. Others say it is not a bad thing. I am just saying he will have tremendous influence – for better or worse.
And it should be pointed out that Barbour has at times yielded, to a degree, on his position because of the dogged determination of the House leadership.
That is why the actions of today – approval of a Legislative Budget Committee proposal – is reason for optimism, but don’t bet the farm on the House and Senate leaders reaching a budget agreement on time during the 2010 session.
After all, detente does not mean an end of tensions.
That’s not likely to occur in any legislative process – especially not this one in these tough economic times.

Contact Journal Capitol Bureau chief Bobby Harrison by e-mail at bobbyharrison@djournal.com or call him at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison