By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – In the next couple of weeks, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has a tough decision to make.
No, I am not talking about whether he will run for president. That decision, he says, will come in April. But best I can surmise, that is not a decision to be made. He already has decided to run. He just isn’t saying yet.
The decision I am talking about is confined right here to Mississippi – whether to sign into law a bill, approved by overwhelming margins of both chambers of the state Legislature, to provide essentially level funding for community colleges for the next fiscal year.
The Republican Barbour has been one of the biggest vocal supporters of the state’s community college system. But behind the scene, he has been active at times in holding down its level of funding.
Earlier this year, Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, offered an amendment on the Senate floor to increase funding for the community colleges for the next fiscal year starting July 1 by $15 million to the level they are receiving this year.
Community colleges have seen enrollment increase 54 percent during the past 10 years while state support has decreased 26 percent. Gordon argued that they could not sustain additional cuts.
The Gordon amendment was in direct opposition to the position of the Senate appropriations leadership and thus presumably to Barbour, who has had inordinate influence over the Senate appropriators during his tenure.
Despite that opposition to Gordon’s amendment by Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, it passed with only five dissenting votes in the 52-member chamber.
Normally House and Senate leaders put all appropriations bills in conference where they work out a compromise during the final days of the session.
But House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, instead of sending the community college appropriations bill to conference, made the motion on the House floor to accept the Senate position and send the bill straight to Barbour.
Stringer actually had proposed an additional $3 million more for the community colleges, but reasoned he would not be able to get more in negotiations with Davis than the level funding amount offered by Gordon and approved by the full Senate.
So now the governor must decide whether to accept that level funding level or veto the bill, presumably to try to garner less money for the two-year colleges in conference.
Barbour has been proud of his record of never having a veto overridden by the Legislature. It appeared two years ago that his veto of a bill preventing the taking of private property for the use of another private entity would be overridden.
His veto was overridden in the House, but it was upheld in the state Senate when he was able to garner some Democrats to support his position.
It, of course, takes a two-thirds majority of both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto.
There have been other times when Barbour has yielded to positions he disagreed with when it appeared he could not get the votes to uphold his veto.
The community college funding bill presents an interesting dilemma for the governor. Most likely he would prefer to veto the legislation and place community college funding in conference with other state agencies for final negotiations on the budget at the end of the session.
But he would have to change a lot of hearts and minds to not have his veto overridden this time. As stated earlier, five senators in the 52-member chamber voted against the additional funding for community colleges and in the 122-member House only three voted no.
The governor has proven before that his power of persuasion is substantial. But the 15 community college presidents also have been working hard to secure the level funding for their institutions during what is another tough budget year.
Thus far they have the upper hand.
The governor has to decide whether he can wrest that upper hand away from them or sign the bill and proclaim victory and then move on to other decisions.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (601) 353-3119.