The debate is over how deeply to cut the current Fiscal Year 2010 state budget, how deeply to then cut the FY 2011 budget that begins July 1 from FY 2010 levels and how much special fund money is available to throw into the state's revenue gap to offset historic revenue shortfalls.
Those shortfalls are forecast to be at least $380 million in FY 2010, as much as $750 million in FY 2011 and as much as $1.2 billion in FY 2012. The largest current pools of special fund revenue to throw into the budget gaps include $220 million in the Health Care Trust Fund (state tobacco settlement fund) and $235 million in the Working Cash Stabilization Fund or so-called "rainy day" fund.
For legislators confronting budget cuts over the next two-to-three budget years that could range from 9 percent up to as much as 23 percent in some areas of government, the great temptation is to look at the yawning cuts and declare that in terms of special funds it's indeed "raining."
Gov. Haley Barbour's own Executive Budget Recommendation calls for the use of a total of $652 million in special funds or "one-time" money - with some $371 million coming from federal stimulus package funds, $78 million from the "rainy day" fund, $60 million from the tobacco settlement and the rest in budget manipulations like delaying repayment of the hilariously-named Health Care Trust Fund - "trust fund" being the punch line.
In his "State of the State" address on Monday, Barbour again called for legislators to dole out special funds in a systematic, structured manner that would help the state ride out the fiscal storm between now and 2012 by not spending special funds down too fast.
Lawmakers want Barbour to dip more deeply into special funds, discretionary federal stimulus funds to avoid making budget cuts too deep in the current FY 2011 budget year. Barbour's in-a-nutshell response has been one of "what about next year and the next?"
Making budget cuts that deep will impact each state legislator back home at a time when their attention is keenly focused on the looming 2011 statewide elections. Cutting public education, cutting public health care and whacking state agencies is a good way - as they say at the Capitol - "to get your picture taken off the wall."
In other words, it's a good way to get beat for re-election. So the temptation is clear for legislators to make budget decisions based on political self-preservation.
Most lawmakers, however, are facing the current budget crisis conflicted over the propriety of making such deep and sweeping cuts to education, public health and other state functions at a time when unemployment in the state is already bumping 10 percent. Many fears drastic state budget cuts will make local economies even worse. There's some truth to that.
But if lawmakers choose the expedient route - to put off the budget pain for a year - then they will face a greatly amplified budget crisis next year at this time while also involved in their political campaigns. Barbour is term-limited and on the back nine of his second term.
Lawmakers don't have that luxury as they make these budget decisions. They have to cut now or cut later - or more likely, cut now and cut later.
Contact Sid Salter, perspective editor of the Clarion -Ledger, at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail email@example.com.