Skirting governors to get stimulus not easy

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 27, 2009

JACKSON (AP) — Lawmakers in the South could be poised for a showdown with Republican governors who have said they may refuse some of the money available from a $787 billion federal stimulus package.

Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are among a handful of governors who have said they don’t want to accept portions of the stimulus money available under a bill signed earlier this month by Democratic President Barack Obama.

The bill also includes a provision that gives state lawmakers the ability to accept the money even if their governors don’t want it.

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The governors have questioned whether the money available for education, health care and infrastructure will help the economy.

Barbour said he’ll refuse about $56 million in unemployment compensation because it would require Mississippi to expand benefits to part-time workers. The state’s overall share of the package is $2.8 billion.

Democratic lawmakers in his state — the poorest in the nation — have balked at his stance.

‘‘We need to keep Mississippi first and national politics second,’’ House Speaker Billy McCoy, a Democrat from Rienzi, said Thursday.

McCoy said he would lead the effort to overrule Barbour. But Barbour has until April 3 to say whether he wants the total package, and by then, the 2009 legislative session will have ended. It is unlikely Barbour would force legislators to return. Only the governor can call lawmakers back for a special session.

Similar political maneuvering might be necessary in Louisiana, where Jindal has also opposed the unemployment provisions on the grounds that maintaining them after the federal money runs out will be costly for the state.

But Rep. Kevin Pearson, a Republican from Slidell, said Jindal’s position on unemployment puts $98 million at stake and that’s ‘‘a lot of money to turn away.’’

The Louisiana Legislature, which convenes in April, could put the money in its budget and wait to see if Jindal makes good on his threat of a line-item veto, said Rep. Patricia Smith, a Democrat from Baton Rouge.

She said lawmakers would then have to decide whether to go into a veto session to override the governor. Both chambers have a Democratic majority.

There hasn’t been a strong effort to approve a stimulus plan of action in South Carolina, where Republicans control the House and Senate and the state has had to cut $1 billion from its $8 billion budget. South Carolina’s stimulus share is about $8 billion, including tax breaks.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, a Republican from Gaffney, said the governor hasn’t yet said which parts of the stimulus he might or might not accept, so it’s not clear what lawmakers might need to do.

Just in case, Rep. Phil Leventis, D-Sumpter, has introduced a resolution making the South Carolina Budget and Control Board the recipient of the funds. He said all the members are Republican, ‘‘but they will give it a serious look, and look at the reality that the state faces.’’