BOBBY HARRISON: House, Senate agreement stands as final budget hurdle

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – If it seems like legislators are in a hurry to leave the Mississippi Capitol, it is because they are.
After not passing a state budget last year until literally hours before the new fiscal year began on July 1, legislators are fearful of the political backlash from the public if they cannot complete their work in the normal 90-day session this year.
Thus far legislators, especially the House, are ahead of schedule. And the Senate is not that far behind.
But the difficulty – as it always does – comes when House and Senate leaders, with strong input from Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, have to reach a final agreement.
Developing a budget this year will again be especially difficult because of an unprecedented dip in state revenue collections.
In many ways, the revenue picture is worse now than it was last year when the 2009 Legislature took almost to the bewitching hour to pass a budget.
But the 2009 Legislature faced some hurdles that it will not have to deal with this year.
Chief among those is the hospital tax increase.
The issue that kept legislators in Jackson for so long last year was whether to increase the taxes on hospitals to help fund Medicaid.
Plus, the process was slowed last year because it took state leaders a while to determine how federal stimulus funds could be used to plug budget holes. That also will not be a problem this year. Those questions have been answered.
But, perhaps the biggest factor in leading to a timely budget agreement, as already stated, is the political factor. In this current, anti-incumbency environment, legislators don’t want to face the political fallout from not being able to finish their work on time.
That is an especially perilous issue for some members of the Senate leadership. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, is expected to run for governor in 2011 and Senate President Pro Tem Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, is expected to run for lieutenant governor.
They do not need to be painted with the broad brush of being political slackers.
And then there is the case of Senate Appropriations Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
Probably no one legislator is more in the hot seat during the current budget crisis than Nunnelee. He is in the process of running for the 1st District congressional seat.
Nunnelee probably has more reason to finish on time than any other member of the Legislature. First of all, he does not need the bad publicity that he could garner if there is a prolonged stalemate during budget negotiations.
From a more practical standpoint, he doesn’t need to be holed up in a legislative committee room arguing with House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, through April and May over how much to cut education funding. He needs to be out campaigning.
After all, he faces two credible candidates in the June 1 Republican primary – Oxford resident and former Fox News personality Angela McGlowan and former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross.
The Senate leadership and governor already have sent the signals this legislative session that they might not be as aggressive negotiators as in past sessions. For instance, during the negotiations on how much of the budget cuts to restore for the current fiscal year, Nunnelee, Bryant and Barbour essentially accepted the House and Senate Democrats’ position of providing more funds for education and mental health than they originally supported. To get those additional funds, all the House negotiators had to do was agree to provide more money to the Department of Corrections.
If the negotiations on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year go as smoothly as the talks on restoring funds for the current fiscal year went, legislators could indeed finish on time and be out before Easter.
But based on past performance, we shouldn’t count our eggs before they are dyed.

Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.