Lawmakers miss their budget deadline

Published 12:14 am Sunday, March 27, 2011

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers missed their Saturday night deadline to file a $5.5 billion state budget compromise, but negotiators say they’ll continue talks over the coming days.

“This is not the end of the road,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando.

Lawmakers said talks stalled because the Democratic-controlled House was pushing to spend millions more on education and mental health services than the Republican-controlled Senate, while senators wanted to keep more money in reserves because of uncertainty about how quickly the state economy might recover.

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The three-month session is scheduled to end April 2. By missing Saturday’s deadline, lawmakers will be forced to extend the session because they’re not allowed to vote on budget bills during the final few days they’re at the Capitol.

Legislators have missed their budget deadline several times in recent years, but most were hoping to finish on time during this election year. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

Negotiators agreed Saturday on a $422.9 million bond bill that will allow the state to take on long-term debt. Most of it — $270 million — is to fund projects such as the renovation of state office buildings and college campus repairs.

The balance is for economic development projects.

A separate bond bill filed Saturday night includes $15 million for a proposed Mississippi civil rights museum and $15 million for a comprehensive state history museum, with a requirement that both museums raise private money.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who’s considering a 2012 presidential run, spoke in Iowa Friday and early Saturday. He returned to Mississippi on Saturday afternoon to participate in budget talks, and he held a private meeting with several lawmakers at the Governor’s Mansion. Barbour spokeswoman Laura Hipp said Republicans and Democrats were invited.

“No budget is better than a bad budget,” Barbour said in a statement Saturday night. “There is still plenty of time for the House and Senate to agree with me on a responsible budget that reduces expenditures and maintains reserves while adequately funding the priorities of our state.”

Because of the budget talks, Barbour cancelled a trip he originally scheduled for Sunday and Monday to New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the nation’s first presidential primary.

Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy said early Saturday that senators were being “lap dogs” for Barbour by not engaging in budget talks while the governor was out of state.

“He can be up yon’ in northern states telling those people how conservative he is, how he’s beating these liberals into line down here — whoever the liberals are. Clearly, I believe we’re the conservatives today,” McCoy said.

Negotiators were supposed to file dozens of proposed budget bills by 8 p.m. Saturday, but it’s unclear when those will be filed. Once the bills are in, they’ll go to the full 122-member House and 52-member Senate for consideration.

House budget negotiators were not immediately available for comment after the deadline passed.

Davis said he respects McCoy, House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer of Montrose and House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown of Jackson — three Democrats who are deeply engaged in budget talks.

“They’re just wanting to spend more than the Senate is,“ Davis said.

The big bond bill includes $3 million for planning and site selection for the state Department of Revenue to build a new headquarters somewhere within the Jackson city limits. More than two dozen employees were hospitalized in January after a suspected natural gas leak at the department’s warehouse-style building in Clinton.

The Department of Revenue — which, until last year was called the Tax Commission — moved to the Clinton building about 15 years ago. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby said the agency originally was only supposed to stay there a year and a half.