Local legislators see special session differently

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NATCHEZ — One Natchez legislator voted for a bill that will allow the governor to dip into the state’s rainy day fund to address a budget shortfall, while another one says he wants more answers before a vote scheduled for today.

Gov. Phil Bryant officially called for a special session of the Legislature Tuesday to address what could be a $75 million shortfall on the state’s $6 billion spending plan for the 2016 budget year, which ends at midnight Thursday.

The state constitution requires a balanced budget. The governor has already taken $45 million from the fund and has already enacted two rounds of budget cuts.

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Currently, the governor’s authority to access the rainy day fund is capped at $50 million, but Tuesday the Senate passed a bill 33-14 that removes that cap. Procedural rules dictate that the House can’t take it up for a day.

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, voted for the bill, saying it was something that had to be done quickly because of the looming deadline.

“The constitution says we have to have a balanced budget, and the revenue didn’t come in, so that is why we had to have a special session,” Dearing said.

The governor hasn’t asked for changes to the incoming budget, and Dearing said revenues are projected to increase in the coming year.

“Economists say (revenues) could go up anywhere from one to three percent, and if it does we are in good shape,” he said. “But I hope we don’t have to make any more cuts. Most state agencies are laying people off and shutting down facilities, and any time that happens it is not a good situation.”

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said Tuesday afternoon he and other House Democrats were meeting with officials from the departments of revenue and finance administration to see if they could get some solid numbers on what revenue the state has actually received and what is needed. The bill does not have any specific numbers attached to it.

“The bill that has come to us from the Senate, all it does is give the governor the authority to balance the budget without us knowing what the deficit will be,” he said.

“I think it makes sense for us to spend another extra day or two getting extra information to determine what to do to balance the budget — it may turn out we may not need to take any more money out.”

Johnson said regardless of what Democrats learn, he thinks the bill will get an up-or-down vote today, though it will have “a considerable amount of discussion and debate about it.”

“In my opinion, I think we should take the time as legislators, because the Constitution requires us to appropriate money, and I think it is our job to determine what we need to do now and how we need to do it instead of giving that to the governor,” he said.

In the long term, the state needs to look at corporate tax breaks that have been given in recent years, Johnson said.

“In the last three to four years, we have given more than $125 million in tax breaks to corporations in a state whose economy is growing at the slowest rate in the country, and one fourth of the rate it is growing in the southeast,” he said. “And we voted to give away another $415 million this year that we really just can’t afford.

“We need to come back and revisit those issues, and if we aren’t willing to do that, it is probably going to get worse.”

The House is expected to take the matter up this morning.