UPDATE: State lawmakers move backward in budget discussion

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers said they did the opposite of what they intended Thursday as House and Senate negotiators moved farther apart, rather than closer together, in their budget talks.

“We’re losing ground on it, right?” Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, asked late in the day.

“It could be characterized that way,” Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant told the Senate.

Both chambers return to the Capitol early Friday, but it’s not clear whether they’ll stay to work through the weekend.

Thursday was the third day this week that most of the 122 House members and 52 senators were in Jackson with little to do. Only about a dozen negotiators have been working on the details of a nearly $5 billion budget for the year that begins July 1.

Once the final version of budget bills are filed, the entire House and Senate will get to vote.

“We continue to be optimistic,” House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said late Thursday. “It’s just a long and arduous process.”

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has urged legislators to be cautious because the recession has caused a decline in state tax collections.

McCoy and Bryant said the House and Senate still had significant differences over whether to grant Barbour’s request to put money into a reserve fund that could be tapped for Medicaid starting in January 2011, after millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package are gone.

McCoy said Thursday that some lawmakers are trying to revive the governor’s plan for a hospital tax to help pay for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy. House and Senate leaders said late last week that they would try to write a budget without a hospital tax.

Legislators usually finish the state budget by early April, but they gave themselves extra time this year because they wanted to see how the federal stimulus money will affect Mississippi government. After three months, they left April 1. They returned May 6-8, then went back into recess until this week.

The session is now scheduled to end next Wednesday. If the budget is still not done by then, it would take a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to extend the session to allow more time for talks.

Bryant said Thursday that he sees no point of keeping senators at the Capitol this weekend unless the budget bills are ready for votes.

“We do not need to be here if we are going to be wasting taxpayers’ money,” Bryant said.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press