BOBBY HARRISON: A state budget by July 1 looks less like a sure bet in gridlock

JACKSON – A group of guys with whom I might play a friendly game of cards on a regular basis where small amounts of
money might or might not exchange hands expressed pleasure recently that the Legislature could not agree on a budget.
I didn’t say too much. We all know the old adage that it’s not safe for the populace when the Legislature is in session and that the best Legislature is one that does nothing.
They reasoned if the Legislature could not agree, then they were doing nothing, so that had to be a good thing.
I know the jokes. Repeat some of them myself.
But here it is the first of June – less than a month before the new fiscal year begins – and there is no budget agreement.
Used to when people would ask me what I thought was going to happen in the current budget impasse between the House and Senate and Gov. Haley Barbour, I would say, “They will get an agreement and it will be before July 1.”
I don’t say that anymore. I’m not so sure.
House and Senate budget conferees have been meeting on and off for more than two months and their positions have changed little. They are about as close now as they were in early May.
Senate leaders and Barbour still want a $90 million tax increase on hospitals and they still want to set aside money for the 2010 session even though they already have a rainy day fund of about $270 million and probably another $200 to $300 million in various other savings accounts.
House leaders say they don’t like a hospital tax increase, but will agree to a $60 million increase, in the spirit of compromise, if the governor and Senate leaders will give them some assurance they will not cut reimbursements to hospitals for the services they provide to Medicaid patients. Plus, House leaders say in the current tight budget situation they can’t agree to set money aside for next year because it would mean cuts to education and to other vital services.
After a couple of months, it seems that the House and Senate negotiators could find some common ground. But thus far that has not occurred and, as the days fly by, July 1 is getting closer.
What would be the consequence of not having a budget by July 1?
The state budget funds education from the kindergarten through university level; highway construction and maintenance; Medicaid programs to provide health care for the elderly, disabled, poor pregnant women and children; the Highway Patrol, including the personnel who renew driver’s licenses. The list goes on and on.
Without a budget, much of government, all involving the state, would ground to a halt. I guess there would not be money to turn on the lights, much less the air-conditioning, nor provide security for the very Capitol building where I sit today and where the Legislature will reconvene on Wednesday to continue to get paid even though in less than a month there will be no money to pay anybody.
Part of a negotiations process is public perception. Both sides worry about who is winning the public relations war on the budget. Both go to extraordinary means to try to win that war. Barbour has had two news conferences on the budget in less than a week.
Each side sends out statements saying why it is right and the other side is wrong.
If there is no budget agreement by July 1 and state government essentially shuts down, there will be no winners and even my possible card-playing friends, though they don’t want to admit it right now, will be upset.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (662)-678-1579 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal