By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Some Democratic legislators are saying that a proposal of the House Republican leadership would strip individual members of the opportunity to have influence in the all-important state budget process.
House Rules Committee Chairman Mark Formby, R-Picayune, said the intent of the proposal is to ensure fiscal responsibility and to prevent meaningless floor votes to increase spending on popular programs when in fact funds are not available to pay for it.
The proposal is in the joint rules expected to be voted on early this week by the House and then the Senate. They establish guidelines for the operations of the two chambers.
At issue is a section of the joint rules that would require a legislator wanting to increase spending to a particular entity, such as K-12 education or the Department of Health, on the floor of the House or Senate to specify from which agency or agencies the money would be taken.
Formby said the intent of the proposal is to prevent a member from proposing an amendment during floor debate to increase funding to a program “that sounds good to the general public … but it throws the budget out of whack” because there is no money to pay for it.
Formby said the proposal would put in place for the entire Legislature the same rule that was followed in the House Appropriations Committee during past terms under Democratic leadership.
“It was basically called the McCoy Rule in committee,” said Formby, referring to former House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi.
Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said such a rule did exist during his chairmanship, but said members had more options. He said all sources of funds, including reserves, were available to appropriate, if a majority approved spending the funds.
Stringer said, as he understands, with the new joint rule proposal only the funds actually budgeted for spending by the Appropriations Committee would be available to transfer from agency to agency. In other words, members could not debate whether to tap into other sources of money, like reserves, for additional spending.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Stringer said.
He added, “We might as well stay at the house. They can mail the budget to us. It’s pretty bad.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the rule “would concentrate the power in the hands of the speaker and a handful of his people.” He said the rules change would be going back to the 1980s when the House was controlled by a a small group of leaders.
In the past, Bryan said the membership in both chambers has been successful in offering amendments to increase funding in a particular area.
If the new rule passes, Bryan said if someone offers an amendment on the Senate floor to take $50 million out of the rainy day fund to increase spending for education, “that amendment would be ruled out of order and that would be the end of it.”
Even if the source of the increased funding was not identified by a member proposing additional money for a particular area, it sent the message to the leadership that a majority of the members wanted more spending for that agency. When House and Senate leaders went to conference at the end of the session to work on a budget accord, the leadership had the message from a majority vote of the members that they favored more spending in a particular area.
That procedure was effective, for instance, in garnering more funds for the community colleges during the past term.
The late Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, offered an amendment last session on the Senate floor to increase funding for community colleges. That amendment passed and was honored by the leadership in reaching the budget accord at the end of the session.
Formby said the proposal has been discussed with the leadership of both the House and the Senate.
“We are trying very hard to implement rules that will be good for the House whether we (Republicans) are in charge or whether we are not,” he said.
He said it would not be smart for Republicans to do otherwise since they currently hold a slim 64-58 advantage in the House. Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time since the 1800s.