Senate nixes House plan to ease cuts

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Senate on Monday voted to invite negotiations with the House on Gov. Haley Barbour’s budget cuts rather than accept a House bill that would use state reserve funds to offset $100 million of the cuts.
Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, successfully argued that the state could not afford what the House proposed, and his position prevailed on a 25-23 vote.
On the Senate floor, Nunnelee made the successful motion to invite negotiations with the House leadership over issues related to the budget cuts the governor has made during the current fiscal year because tax collections have not met projections.
The House’s bill would have lessened the cuts to education, mental health, the judiciary and other areas.
Senate Democrats, led by Gray Tollison of Oxford and Hob Bryan of Amory, tried to persuade the Senate to instead send to Barbour a House proposal that would take $100 million from reserves funds of about $500 million to restore some of the money.
Nunnelee’s motion prevailed by a slim margin, but the bill was held on a motion to reconsider by Tollison, meaning the fight over the issue could play out again in the coming days.
Nunnelee argued against taking $100 million out of reserve funds to deal with the current budget crisis. He said the funds would be needed in coming years as the budget crisis worsened.
But he said he hopes to reach agreement with the House leadership during conference committee negotiations on specific areas where funds need to be restored. He mentioned that the state’s districts attorneys would not have enough money to prosecute cases throughout the fiscal year, which ends June 30, unless they have some funds restored.
“It is my desire to get this bill in conference so we can address some of those needs very quickly,” he said.
But Tollison and Bryan argued that if senators wanted to ensure that funds were restored to education, they needed to vote not to go to conference, but to send the bill to the governor.
If the governor vetoed the bill as expected, the Legislature could decide then how to deal with the budget crisis.
“These cuts are unlike anything that has occurred in the memory if anyone in this room and will be devastating to the schools back home,” Bryan said during debate in the Senate chamber.
“You won’t have another opportunity to undo the cuts the governor has made to education.”
Tollison said that the cuts the governor has made to education and to a fund that partially reimburses the counties for homestead exemption will result in local property taxes being increased.
Bryan said “it makes no economic sense” to be making cuts that will result in the layoff of state employees at a time when the state should be trying to avoid additional economic downturn.
The governor has made three rounds of budget cuts this year, totaling about $437 million or 8.2 percent for most agencies. The $100 million in the House bill would reduce the cuts to 6.4 percent for kindergarten through 12th grade education and to less than 6 percent for higher education and community colleges.
All Northeast Mississippi senators voted to send the bill to the governor with the exception of Nunnelee and Gary Jackson, R-French Camp. All of the chamber’s 25 Republicans voted not to send the bill to the governor with the exception of Billy Hudson of Hattiesburg. Two of the chamber’s 26 Democrats voted with Nunnelee.
Two Democrats were absent and one Republican was not recorded as voting.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.