Lawmakers appear at impass on Miss. budget

Published 11:46 pm Friday, March 25, 2011

JACKSON (AP) — Lawmakers can’t agree on how much money to spend for mental health, public education and other key programs, and Mississippi House and Senate leaders likely won’t meet Saturday’s deadline to file a compromise, lawmakers said Friday.

Once the compromise is filed, it would then be considered by the full House and Senate. Gov. Haley Barbour’s absence from the state isn’t helping matters, said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, and Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

“The governor’s in Iowa. We want a budget. We want to get this done,” Brown said Friday.

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Barbour, who’s expected to make an announcement about a presidential bid soon, was scheduled to be in Iowa through Saturday. Friday, Barbour canceled an appearance in New Hampshire that had been scheduled for Sunday and Monday. Both states hold early presidential primary contests.

Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Barbour, said the governor will return to Mississippi Saturday.

Barbour said in a news release Friday that the House budget plan spends more than the state is expected to generate in revenue.

“The House position on the budget is to ignore reality. Mississippi is experiencing 10 percent unemployment, high gas prices and a slowly recovering economy,” Barbour said.

Brown, who chairs the House Education Committee and is also a top budget writer, said Barbour wants lawmakers to fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program by raiding other education programs, including the teacher school supply and building equipment funds. The adequate education program provides a formula to ensure schools in both poor and wealthy communities receive equitable funding.

“It’s a shell game. Our answer to that is no. In fact, it was ’H’ no. We are not going to do it. I’m not going to sign off on it,” Brown told House members. “That’s where we are.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said the Senate proposes cutting about $40 million from those other K-12 programs. Davis has said there’s about $65 million that school districts have in reserve because of federal money they received last year. He said other agencies, including the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the state Auditor’s Office, also have to be adequately funded.

“We’re doing all we can for all areas,” Davis said.

House leaders said Barbour wants to cut about $20 million from the Department of Mental Health budget. Stringer said that would force the closure of crisis centers across the state. Stringer also said the governor doesn’t want to provide $15 million to the University of Mississippi Medical Center so that it can receive matching federal Medicaid money.

Lawmakers have until 8 p.m. Saturday to file a compromise on the state’s $5.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. If negotiators make the deadline, the full House and Senate could begin considering bills on Sunday. The 2011 session is set to end April 2.

House leaders said they were planning to send the Senate their proposals on mental health, K-12 education and universities. However, there have been disagreements as to where money for the budget would come from.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said he’s concerned about the House proposal because it uses about $500 million that the state will receive only once to pay for expenses that will need to be covered every year. That means lawmakers will have to figure out another way to get that money come 2013.

“I just keep asking, where is that going to come from? That means dramatic cuts on education, health care, next year — or a tax increase. So, I just think we’ve got to have a real balanced budget,” said Bryant, who’s running for governor.

The $5.5 billion budget plan for fiscal year 2012 includes $4.6 billion of general fund revenue, which comes from a wide array of taxes and fees. About $900 million comes from other sources, including federal stimulus money, lawsuit settlements and financial reserves. Legislators voted to add $14.4 million to the estimate of general fund revenue for the coming year, taking that figure from just under $4.6 billion to just over it. They made the change after an economist report about positive economic trends.

Davis, the Senate appropriations chairman, was opposed to changing the revenue estimate. Barbour also criticized the move.