By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – The Mississippi Senate, after more than three hours of debate Wednesday, agreed to give Gov. Haley Barbour the additional authority he has requested to make budget cuts.
By a 29-19 vote, senators approved a measure that would allow Barbour to cut agency budgets of his choosing by up to 10 percent.
But under the bill, the governor would have that authority only during the 2010 session. That way, legislators would have oversight of any gubernatorial cuts, said Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, the author of the amendment limiting the time frame.
Under current law, the governor cannot cut any agency more than 5 percent until he cuts all agencies 5 percent. And when he does cut more than 5 percent, he must cut all agencies equally.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said it was “the responsible” action for the Senate to give the governor the extra authority to make cuts needed for a balanced budget.
Without that authority, Nunnelee said, the governor would be forced to cut the Department of Corrections as much as education and other agencies.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has told Nunnelee and other legislators that he will have to release up to 7,000 inmates if his budget is cut 9 percent or more, which some believe is how much Barbour will take from many agencies, including education.
But others questioned giving Barbour so much flexibility and also the wisdom of making any more cuts. House Appropriations Committee Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said more than $500 million in reserve funds can be tapped to offset the state’s revenue shortfall.
Still, Stringer said he is working on a compromise on how to deal with the current budget crunch, which has resulted from an unprecedented decline in state revenue collections.
On the first day of the session last week, Stringer passed out of his committee legislation that he said was an attempt to compromise with the governor and the Senate. But Stringer said he decided not to take up the legislation after Republicans in the House voiced opposition.
Barbour already has slashed many agencies, including education, 5 percent to deal with the revenue shortfall. He has made $225 million in budget reductions and has said an additional $215 million in cuts need to be made.
But before making those cuts, he said, he needs more flexibility.
He wants the authority to cut any agency he chooses up to 10 percent while at the same time exempting from cuts any agency of his choosing. The Senate bill gives him that authority.
“We’re completely turning over the mechanics of the whole budget to the governor,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
“If cuts are imposed, and trust me, the governor will impose cuts, it will have a dramatic effect on state agencies.”
He said teachers and state employees would be laid off.
Bryan said tapping into the reserve funds is another option.
“Our hope for the future is public education,” he said. “We cannot now eat the seed corn by cutting back on public education.”
Nunnelee and others fought back an attempt to exempt education from the cuts. Sparing education, he said, would put too big a strain on other agencies, such as Corrections.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said it is important to give the governor the additional authority quickly.
He said school superintendents have told him, “if cuts are coming, and they are, tell us as soon as you can. …So I think it’s a sense of urgency we have to get this bill.”
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.