BILL MINOR: Nunnelee ‘chief impediment’ to state budget compromise

JACKSON – What does it tell you about Mississippi’s ability to govern itself when the Legislature couldn’t craft and fund the 2010 FY budget within its 90-day regular session and now must be called back into special session to prevent a shutdown of state government after June 30?
You could very well say that Mississippi, now 192 years a member of the United States of America, has evidenced it is incapable of self-government. But on close inspection you could conclude that the Legislature has become virtually dysfunctional from a partisan wedge driven by the state’s chief executive into the legislative ranks.
Did you notice that Republican Gov. Haley Barbour didn’t seem very upset by lawmakers walking away without adopting and funding a budget? Remember he holds a veto ax over any revenue bill legislators might pass and in a special session he holds the trump cards to set the Legislature’s agenda.
Already, Barbour has greater control over the legislative process than any governor in my memory, possibly rivaled only by Ross Barnett in the 1960s at the peak of the state’s emotional binge to resist against any federal challenge to Mississippi’s white supremacy. Gridlock as we now have up at the Capitol – fed by rigid partisan loyalty to a governor – was unknown in this state until Barbour arrived in 2004.
I was more prescient than I imagined in a lecture at the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University three weeks before the 2003 election, in predicting how Barbour would govern after being elected. I drew a picture of how Mississippi’s Legislature could soon be gripped by the same partisan gridlock that California was experiencing at the time.
An embattled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in California then faced gridlock and a budget deficit of around $24 billion. He was recalled and replaced by movie star (”Terminator”) Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, promising major fiscal reform. Ironically, five years later, California is financially broke, without a state budget, and a shortfall somewhere between $35 billion and $45 billion.
Big difference though between Arnold and Haley: Schwarzenegger has proposed raising taxes and his fellow Republicans are blocking them, while in Mississippi Barbour opposes virtually every tax proposal, and his GOP allies in the Senate jump like puppets on a string to do his bidding.
Rep. Cecil Brown (D) Jackson, regarded as the Legislature’s best informed fiscal authority, aptly describes how Barbour’s presence hangs over the deadlocked Senate-House budget conference committee. When several times deals with Senate conferees suddenly fell through, Brown says Barbour “was the elephant in the room.” Sen. Allen Nunnelee, (R, Tupelo), the Senate’s key conferee, by reneging on previously agreed points, has become the chief impediment to a budget compromise say several observers who have sat in on the negotiations.
Brown, the House Education Committee chairman and the staunchest advocate for public education, says that despite his pledge to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program this year, Barbour cut MAEP $49 million. Now, Brown contends, Barbour is trying to pull a “bait and switch” scheme to delay using $50 million in federal funds designated for education in President Obama’s stimulus package and create a “savings account” for the FY 2010 budget.
“He (Barbour) has never gotten an okay from the feds to do that, but he already has it in his budget,” said Brown.
Meantime, funding the huge Medicaid program is a big snag that must be resolved to break the Senate-House-Barbour gridlock. At the root of the issue is the use of Obama’s stimulus money as a bailout to save the program. But the hang-up is over a “bed tax” on both public and private hospitals Barbour has been pushing. In his budget he has $90 million from the hospital assessment to help fund the state Medicaid match. So far, Senate conferees have agreed to $60 million from the hospitals, while the House is at $47 million, but also wants protection for hospitals against later cuts in their Medicaid allotments.
Most people forget that despite Barbour’s loud protestations against any tax or fee increases when he took office in 2004, that year he quietly pushed an increase from $4 to $6 the assessment on nursing homes for each bed, most of which they could recoup from Medicaid. Then again in 2005, he backed a measure lifting the ceiling on the nursing home bed assessment which resulted in nearly quadrupling the tax. “No tax Haley?” Really?

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through edinman@earthlink.net.

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