By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – On the same day the Mississippi Senate upheld Gov. Haley Barbour’s veto of a bill restoring money that he had cut from the budget, legislative leaders began negotiations on another restoration proposal.
Both Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who led the effort to sustain Barbour’s veto Thursday, said they hope to get agreement quickly on a new proposal that would put money back into the budget.
In a prepared statement, Barbour said he too hoped an agreement could be reached on a new proposal to restore some of the $458.5 million he has cut this fiscal year because tax collections have not met projections.
“It’s critical that we put this fiscal year behind us because we have major challenges and tough decisions to make on the state budget for next year,” Barbour said. “I will continue working with the Legislature in that effort.”
Late Thursday, key House and Senate budget negotiators met to work on a new agreement. They are scheduled to resume negotiations this monring.
“I am encouraged,” Nunnelee said.
But Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, a key House negotiator, said, “We are far apart.”
Brown said he did not understand why Nunnelee and the governor insist that $16 million be put back into prisons at the expense of education. Brown said neither chamber has approved restoring more than $4 million of the $29 million slashed from the Department of Corrections.
The bill vetoed Wednesday by the governor spent $79 million of the state’s more than $500 million in reserve funds, with most of the money going to education.
The $79 million was halfway between the $100 million passed by the House and the $58 million passed by the Senate.
But Barbour vetoed the bill Wednesday, saying it used too much of the reserve funds and did not spend enough on prisons.
On Thursday, Barbour’s veto was upheld in the Senate after almost two hours of debate. Thirty members in the 52-member chamber voted to override the governor, four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
Twenty-one members voted to support the governor’s veto. All Northeast Mississippi senators with the exception of Nunnelee voted to override Barbour.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, argued unsuccessfully to override the governor because, he said, any new compromise would spend less on education than the $51 million in the vetoed proposal.
He said the sensible route would to pass the bill over the governor’s veto to get help immediately to school districts and work separately on a proposal to provide additional funds for Corrections as Barbour wanted.
He said Barbour could even restore funds to the Department of Corrections without the consent of the Legislature.
“There is no reason to vote against this bill unless you do not want your schools to get the money,” Bryan told senators.
Asked if education would receive as much money in a new compromise as it received in the vetoed legislation, both Bryant and Nunnelee refused to answer.
“I am not making any commitment right now,” the lieutenant governor said.
But the proposals offered by both House and Senate negotiators late Thursday would give less to education. The House proposal designates $43 million for kindergarten through the university level. The Senate proposal would spend about $5 million less.
Nunnelee said he agreed with the governor that the bill took too much of the state’s reserve funds. That money, he said, would be needed for future years.
“Before it is over, it may be the worst financial downfall this state has ever seen,” Nunnelee said.
He said the goal of those who supported the veto override was to spend all of the state’s reserve funds and force a tax increase.
“Their strategy is to deplete it all and come back and demand a tax increase,” Nunnelee said.
But Bryan said the money in the bill represents only 15 percent of the state’s reserve funds and was only $12 million more than the governor said was acceptable to spend in his veto message.
Bryan said the additional money in the vetoed bill would provide funds to prevent layoffs – especially at local school districts. But if the school districts did not get the funds there would be layoffs or possibly local property tax increases to offset the cuts in state spending.
Brown said the Department of Mental Health already is taking steps to furlough employees.
Thursday’s vote continued Barbour’s streak of never being overridden. All Democrats voted to override the governor and they were joined by four Republicans.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.