UPDATE: Miss. lawmakers start passing final budget bills

By Emily Wagster Pettus/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers passed the final versions of dozens of general fund budget bills Wednesday, sending Gov. Haley Barbour a lean spending plan for state government in the coming year.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee told his Senate colleagues that he has tried to give them as much information as possible about how tax dollars will be spent.

“If I’m hit by a Mac truck tomorrow and I never walk back in this Senate chamber, I hope (that’s) one of the legacies I’ll leave,” said Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.

Mississippi will have a nearly $5.5 billion budget for the year that begins July 1.

That’s down significantly from the roughly $6 billion budget the state had at the start of the current year. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has made five rounds of spending cuts since last summer because of anemic tax collections during the economic slump.

The budget for the coming year includes about $300 million drawn from the state’s financial reserves.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said Mississippi will still have hundreds of millions of dollars left in reserve funds. He said some of that should’ve been used to help school districts avoid eliminating teachers’ jobs and to help state agencies avoid furloughs.

“The cuts that we’re getting ready to make in this budget … are so deep and so severe, they’re counterproductive and we don’t have to do it,” Bryan said.

The Senate Finance Committee took steps Wednesday toward wrapping up other unfinished business of the 2010 session, which ran from early January until late March and resumed this week. Lawmakers are hoping to go home in the next few days.

The Finance Committee passed one bill that would keep the state Department of Employment Security alive beyond June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. That bill moves to the full Senate for a vote.

The committee killed another bill that could’ve reconfigured the way unemployment benefits are calculated.

The Democratic chairman of the House Labor Committee, Rufus Straughter of Belzoni, was pushing the recalculation for benefits because he thought it would help people during tough economic times.

Straughter temporarily blocked both employment bills from advancing to the Senate because he wanted to push for the recalculation of benefits. He said he released the bills Wednesday after getting assurance that the recalculation would get a vote in Senate Finance.

Straughter has criticized Barbour for rejecting millions of dollars in stimulus money for the jobless and said he hoped a recalculation of benefits would force Barbour to accept the money.

“This debate has always been about the people,” Straughter said in a news release. “I have taken a stand for Mississippi workers and their families who have sent a clear message to the Capitol: ‘We are struggling.'”

Barbour has said changing the calculations could lead to tax increases on businesses when the stimulus money disappears.

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The bills are House Bills 1755 and 1756.