JACKSON – House leaders, expressing growing frustration that Gov. Haley Barbour is not available to negotiate the state budget, sent proposed spending compromises Friday to their Senate counterparts.
The House offered proposals for spending on education – from the kindergarten to the university level – and mental health. Those are the two most contentious budget areas.
The proposal provides level funding for education. It also provides funds to operate the 15 community mental health centers while ensuring that the Department of Mental Health would not have to close any hospitals.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said he would not agree to any spending proposal until an agreement is reached on the amount of revenue available to spend.
It is becoming apparent that the Legislature and governor are on the verge of a budget impasse. If an agreement is not reached this weekend, the Legislature will have to extend the session to pass a budget or go into special session.
House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, and House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who offered the proposal, said that in reality, they need to be negotiating with Barbour and not the Senate leadership.
Stringer said both the full Senate and full House, by overwhelming margins, already have agreed on an amount to spend on education. But it is Barbour who is the primary obstacle to providing education what is essentially level funding.
Stringer said neither the House nor the full Senate would agree to Barbour’s proposed cuts for public education.
In a prepared statement, Barbour said, “The House position on the budget is to ignore reality. Mississippi is experiencing 10 percent unemployment, high gas prices and a slowly recovering economy. The House is spending too much – $500 million more than the state’s revenue.”
Stringer said he kept his budget staff at the Capitol until 9 p.m. Thursday waiting to get a response from Barbour on the latest House proposal. Barbour has been out of the state frequently as he positions himself for a likely presidential run.
Barbour announced Friday night he has canceled a trip to New Hampshire for Sunday and Monday to deal with the budget at home.
Laura Hipp, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Barbour is “is engaged in the process” and that his staff was communicating with legislators. She called the complaints “nothing more than politics.”
But Stringer responded, “Phones and faxes are fine if somebody is on the other end to talk to.”
Barbour wants budget leaders make an additional $77 million in cuts from their proposal and put more funds in reserves. Stringer said they offered to make $37 million in cuts and place more funds in reserves than Barbour proposed himself in his budget plan released before the session began.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said Friday that he is still hopeful that a compromise can be reached by tonight’s deadline and that it might be something that Barbour would accept, even if he didn’t like it.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal