EDITORIAL: Seeking balance

By NEMS Daily Journal

A vote’s expected today in the Mississippi Senate on the House’s version of spending reduction legislation for fiscal year 2010, and it could suggest how much of a compromise would be needed if the issue goes to a conference committee for resolution, as some legislators suggest.
The Senate voted late last week to give Gov. Barbour authority to make cuts of up to 10 percent in most agency budgets, expanding his authority from the 5 percent limit in force until all budgets are equally cut.
Barbour says he can’t cut the Department of Corrections 5 percent because it would require releasing thousands of prisoners short of full sentences.
Barbour has cut $225 million so far, and he says more cuts – $191 million from the $5 billion general fund – are necessary.
The House’s counter-proposal, passed Tuesday, would use money from the state’s rainy day fund (Barbour has authority to use $50 million without legislative authorization from the $260 million fund), and the House would require the governor to spend $61 million from federal stimulus funds under his control before cutting more.
Under that scenario, the House says, the budget would require only an additional $13 million in cuts, based on the revenue estimates from the state’s fiscal experts.
The governor uses other estimates.
The logical first step is to agree on the revenue projections, then work again on an agreement for cuts, which are inarguably necessary.
The governor says the Department of Corrections can’t be cut more than 3 percent because prisoners would have to be released before necessary rehabilitation is completed.
The other side insists that Barbour’s plan would require laying off or firing public school teachers and eliminating many mental health services, including some hospitals for the seriously mentally ill.
We remain in support of balanced cuts with the stipulation that a prudent percentage of rainy day funds and other available reserves be used to avoid laying off or firing teachers, which would place a hardship on local school districts and raise the student-teacher ratio, which is educationally self-defeating.
Barbour insists that using $61 million from the stimulus isn’t legal. That argument can easily be settled by researching the issue.
Timely action remains important because the longer resolution is delayed the more hardened positions become. Remember the down-to-the-wire budget negotiations and approval in the summer of 2009, hours before the clock struck midnight?
In addition, if 2010 cuts will exceed the currently authorized 5 percent, those reductions will be compacted into five months because the new fiscal year, 2011, begins July 1.
Time is short.