Budget-plug veto upheld by Miss. Senate

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 26, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Gov. Haley Barbour’s allies hardly had to exert themselves Thursday as the Senate upheld his veto of a bill that proposed restoring more than one-fifth of the budget cuts he has made.

Hours later, a few members of the House and Senate started negotiating on another budget restoration bill that has been awaiting their attention for weeks. It’s unclear when they might reach a compromise, with senators wanting more money for prisons than House members initially were willing to give.

School administrators and state agency directors are waiting to see if they’ll get any money back before the fiscal year ends June 30. Most programs have been cut nearly 8.7 percent.

‘‘In my judgment, school districts need to plan on their budgets like they are now,’’ Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said Thursday before negotiations began. ‘‘If we’re able to restore any, that will help ease those cuts.’’

State revenues are lagging because of the weak economy, and Barbour has cut $458.5 million from what started last July as a nearly $6 billion budget.

The bill he vetoed would have taken $79 million from the state’s financial reserves and plugged the money into a variety of state services, with most going to elementary and secondary education. Barbour, a Republican, said the plan gave too little to prisons.

Barbour’s allies revealed Wednesday that the state is getting $36.8 million in federal stimulus money to offset costs of prescription drugs for certain groups of patients on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy. Republicans propose using $14 million to plug holes in this year’s budget, and they said the money doesn’t need to be spent on Medicaid. They want to save the other $22 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Some lawmakers said the unexpected stimulus money was a kind of rabbit-from-the-hat budgetary trick by Barbour.

‘‘He has done this before — finding ’found’ money at the last minute,’’ Rep. John Mayo, D-Clarksdale, wrote in an e-mail to friends and constituents.

In addition to the $14 million in stimulus money, negotiators are now looking at pulling $68 million from reserves, which would plug $82 million back into the overall budget. While senators proposed using $16 million for prisons, the House suggested $10 million.

Before senators even started debating whether to override the governor’s veto on Thursday, Barbour’s staff members were confident they had enough votes to uphold his position. Their head count was correct.

Thirty senators voted to override, but 34 votes were needed. Twenty-one senators sided with Barbour. He’s in his seventh year as governor, and lawmakers still have not reversed any of his vetoes.

Some senators barely glanced up from whatever they were reading — e-mail, newspapers or unrelated bills — during an hour and a half debate that featured the kind of arguments usually guaranteed to prompt indignant responses.

‘‘If we don’t override the governor’s veto, then we need to ask ourselves is there any decency left among us in this chamber?’’ said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.

Several elementary school children from Louisville watched quietly from the Senate balconies.

Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said most lawmakers campaigned three years ago on being friends of education and it was time to stand by those words by overriding the governor.

‘‘Show me the money,’’ Tollison said. ‘‘The money’s right here.’’

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said he was one of several senators invited to the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday evening for a talk with Barbour. Dearing said he voted for the $79 million budget restoration plan when it passed the Senate last week, and voted to override the veto because he didn’t want state workers to lose their jobs.

After 11 Democrats argued against the governor’s position, Republican Nunnelee was the only senator who spoke in favor of it. He said the governor’s opponents want to drain the state’s financial reserves.

‘‘You see, the strategy is to deplete it all and then to come back here and demand a tax increase,’’ Nunnelee said.