Stalled on budget, legislators work on next one

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature on Tuesday began in earnest its work on passing a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Both Appropriations Committees, in the House and Senate, passed a portion of the bills that fund the $5 billion general fund budget.
If things seem a little confusing, it is because they are. For much of the 2010 session, the Legislature has been focused on whether to restore some of the $458.5 million that Gov. Haley Barbour has cut for the current fiscal year because tax collections have not met projections.
The question of how much to restore is still unresolved in the legislative process. The issue could be debated on the Senate floor this week.
But even as a conclusion on that issue is pending, work is beginning on the budget for the next fiscal year.
House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said that under the plan that passed his committee Tuesday, all agencies will receive less money than was budgeted during the 2009 session. Under the plan, some agencies would absorb cuts of as much as 12 percent.
But House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the House plan would restore in the next fiscal year about $68 million of the $204 million Barbour has cut from kindergarten through 12th-grade education this year.
“There are tremendous things going on in education right now, “Brown said. “It just will take time. … The budget is a setback.”
Brown said the state Board of Education needs more resources to take over failing school districts. The state has taken over four districts and is in the process of taking over the Okolona School District.
Four other unspecified school districts need to be placed under the conservatorship of the state, Brown said.
He added that the state board “just doesn’t have the resources.”
Still, Brown said he believes education is on the right track in spite of the budget setbacks.
Stringer said the House budget plan uses about $165 million in reserve funds to offset the loss of state tax collections. That would leave about $265 million in reserve.
Barbour, Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant have called for using less of the reserve, saying it needs to last another three years because of anticipated long-term budget problems.

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