UPDATE: Miss. lawmakers return to Capitol for budget push

By Emily Wagster Pettus/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday after a 3 1/2-week break, and they’ll try to pass a state spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

A small group of House and Senate negotiators reached a $5.5 billion budget deal Friday and are hoping their colleagues will accept it without big fights.

The session is set to end May 3. The state constitution says money bills can’t be passed in the final five days, so work on the budget must be done by April 28.

Some lawmakers say they’re not willing to simply rubber-stamp the proposed budget. Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory said the proposal “dramatically underfunds” education and puts some state employees at risk of having to take unpaid days off.

Bryan said he believes Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has exerted too much control by saying no more than one-third of the state’s rainy day fund could be spent in the coming year.

“The major reason the budget is as stingy as it is, is because of Gov. Barbour,” Bryan said.

Barbour has made five rounds of spending cuts during the current fiscal year because tax collections have fallen short of expectations. Bryan said he believes the governor has cut too much.

Barbour, whose second term expires in January 2012, has said repeatedly that Mississippi needs to be cautious not to deplete its financial reserves. The governor has no major quarrels with the proposed budget for the coming year, spokesman Dan Turner said Monday.

“You just kind of have to swallow hard and hope the numbers work,” Turner said.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, said negotiators did their best while tax collections are limited by the sluggish economy.

“We’re asking every agency to take some pretty serious cuts,” Nunnelee said.

He said state agency directors would be given more flexibility to manage the money they receive, and that leaves open the possibility that some state employees could face furloughs.

Legislators convene in early January and usually pass a budget and finish their annual session by early April. This year, they took a break in late March and delayed completion of the budget until this week in hopes that Congress would approve another round of federal stimulus funding that would include $187 million for Mississippi.

The stimulus money is still in limbo, so lawmakers have written a separate plan for how the $187 million would be used if the money arrives. The plan says $110 million would be put into state programs, with the biggest portion — $82 million — going to elementary and secondary schools. The remaining $77 million would be set aside with the intention of carrying it over into the following fiscal year.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Monday that with the stimulus funds, public schools would receive about as much money in the coming year as they’ve gotten this year.

“I think we’re better off having a budget than not having a budget,” Brown said. “Am I happy with the result? No. I think it’s the best we could’ve done under the circumstances.”

There are a few other items on lawmakers’ agenda, including reauthorization of the state Department of Employment Security to exist after June 30. Senators also still have to consider nominations to several state boards, and both chambers are dealing with bills written for specific cities or counties.