Veto unlikely to end search for money

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – At some point this week, Gov. Haley Barbour will veto legislation that uses $79 million in reserve funds to restore roughly 17 percent of the money he has cut from the budget this year.
Soon after that, the veto message should be read to members of the Senate.
At that point, Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, will have two choices – to send the bill back to committee, where it essentially will die, or to make the motion to pass the bill “governor’s veto notwithstanding.”
Nunnelee, who voted against the bill last week, is expected to try to send it back to committee. If he cannot get majority support for his proposal, someone else can move to pass the bill over the governor’s veto.
That will require a two-thirds vote.
For supporters of the bill, garnering that two-thirds majority will be difficult. It passed the Senate by the relatively slim 26-22 margin with three members absent. It passed the 122-member House by a whopping 106-14 margin.
But before the House can take it up, it must pass the Senate.

Difference of amount
If the veto override is unsuccessful, that does not mean the end of efforts to offset the cuts. Another proposal to deal with the cuts in the current fiscal year is in conference, where House and Senate negotiators will try to work out differences.
Thus far legislative leaders have not met on the proposal in conference. But a legitimate effort to reach a compromise in conference is likely if – as expected – the governor’s veto is upheld.
House and Senate leaders, as well as the governor, all want to restore some of the money. They differ on how much and where it should go.
Barbour, Nunnelee and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant say $79 million is too much of the reserves to spend during the current fiscal year since they expect even tougher budget woes in upcoming years and will need the money then.
The state currently has about $500 million in reserves.
They also say that a larger percentage of any reserve funds that go back into the budget should be used for the Department of Corrections.
Of the proposal he has said he will veto, Barbour said, “This bill spends too much, burns too much of our reserves, and fails to adequately address Corrections, where we still face the possibility of turning criminals loose due to the lack of funding.”
The proposal Nunnelee presented two weeks ago – with the blessing of the governor – spent $16 million of a total package of $58 million on Corrections.
The proposal also would have restored more than half of the $29.5 million the governor cut from the Department of Corrections.
On the other hand, the proposal presented by Nunnelee spent $16.7 million on K-12 education, restoring 8 percent of the $205.8 million cut by Barbour.
The Senate rejected that proposal. Nunnelee, who presented the proposal, voting against it in the end.
“This year the governor has chosen to cut both categories by 8.66 percent,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory said, referring to education and prisons. “Now he proposes to restore more than half the cuts to Corrections, but less than 10 percent of the cuts to education.
“I understand that he has his priorities, and I have mine, but it’s not right to say we are balancing the budget on the backs of Corrections.”
The Nunnelee-Barbour plan also would have restored $4.6 million of the $78.8 million cut from higher education. The plan would not have restored any of the $19.1 million cut from the Department of Mental Health or any of the $1.1 million cut from the veterans homes.
The plan sent to the governor and pending his veto spends significantly more on education, the Department of Mental Health and on other areas, but spends only $1 million for the Department of Corrections.
Nunnelee has indicated that he would be amenable to spending more than the $58 million in his original plan, but less than the $78 million in the proposal sent to Barbour.
And he also has indicated that more must be spent in Corrections. To do that, though, other areas most likely would have to be cut. Many in the House and Senate have voiced opposition to making cuts in education and other areas for Corrections.

Corrections message
Part of the reason for the disagreement might be that at different times the governor has sent different messages concerning the Department of Corrections.
During a January State of the State speech, he said 4,000 inmates would have to be released unless the Legislature gave him more flexibility to make budget cuts without affecting Corrections.
When the House refused to give him that authority, he said he would use federal stimulus funds at his discretion to prevent from having to release a massive number of inmates early.
But in recent weeks, he has said that if he used the stimulus funds, he might not be able to keep a commitment to provide the community colleges with some of that money.
According to Bryan, since 1995, the budget for the Department of Corrections has increased 194 percent to $340.4 million. Most all of that spending is state funds.
During the same time period, the budget for education, including state and federal funds, has increased 105 percent to $3.36 billion.

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