State leaders agree on $5.5 billion budget

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – House and Senate leaders reached agreement late Friday on a $5.5 billion budget, clearing the way for the Legislature to quickly finish its 2010 session next week.
Legislators, who had recessed in late March, will return to the Capitol in Tuesday to take up the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Both House and Senate leaders said that, as expected, the budget will be austere because of the prolonged drop in state tax revenues.
Most agencies will receive less money than appropriated by the 2009 Legislature. But House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said education will receive more funds than it is getting now after Gov. Haley Barbour enacted budget cuts this fiscal year of 9.5 percent.
Many agencies, though, will absorb even deeper cuts.
“This is not a budget I am proud of, but I am proud to have a budget,” said Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. “We are asking agencies throughout state government to deal with difficult cuts just like families across the state are doing.”
House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, Nunnelee and other key legislators began meeting in earnest this week to try to reach agreement.
The full Legislature recessed on March 27 in hopes that an agreement would be reached by the time the session reconvened Tuesday.
One reason for the recess was to wait to see if Congress approved an additional $187 million in stimulus funds for the state. Congress has yet to approve the funds, but the belief is that it will, perhaps as early as May.
A key to reaching the compromise Friday was an agreement to place $110 million of the anticipated additional federal funds in a contingency budget that can be appropriated when the stimulus money arrives. A sizable chuck of those funds will go to education.
“We feel pretty good about getting those funds,” Brown said.
“If they don’t come in, we will really have a serious problem.”
Earlier this week Barbour said he would oppose appropriating the funds – even in a contingency budget – until they were actually approved by Congress.
But late Friday, Nunnelee and other Senate leaders took to the governor the proposal to place $110 million in the contingency budget. After meeting with the governor, Nunnelee returned to Stringer’s office and announced an agreement had been reached.
Asked if the governor accepted the proposal, Nunnelee said, “I had better let the governor speak for himself, but I have always maintained that any agreement must include the House, Senate and the governor.”
Dan Turner, a spokesman for Barbour, confirmed that the governor had been involved in budget negotiations Friday afternoon.
“I don’t know if a final agreement has been reached, but it looks good,” Turner said. “Some things the governor is still not pleased with, but it looks to be workable.”
Details of the agreement were not available late Friday, but Brown said all levels of education would be in better shape under the new budget than they are now, as long as the additional federal funds materialize.
“This budget is pretty rough,” Brown added. “But it is not as bad as it could be.”
An example of the severity of the problem is that the budget reportedly includes language to make it easier for agency heads to lay off or furlough employees.
Many House and Senate members – primarily subcommittee chairs – will return to the Capitol this weekend to incorporate into more than 100 budget bills the details of the agreement reached Friday afternoon.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.