June 9, 2009
Gov. Haley Barbour and the Republican-led Senate are determined to control spending and not have Mississippi fall into a budget hole if the economy worsens.
"It''s hard to compromise those principals," said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who heads the Senate.
The Republicans'' tight-fisted, hard-headed stance is why state government is perilously close to not having money to operate in three weeks, according to the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives.
"In recent years, I have learned that the word ''compromise'' no longer belongs in the vocabulary of Gov. Barbour and the Senate negotiators he appears to manipulate. Capitulation does not belong to mine," said House Speaker Billy McCoy.
The Senate and House ended their five-month session last week without agreeing on the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Lawmakers now await Barbour to order them back into a special session to pass the appropriation bills needed to provide the $18 billion for keeping state programs running another year.
The main budget impasse is over whether to hold $60 million for another year to help cover future Medicaid costs. The Senate wants to save the money. The House wants to spend it now.
Republicans forced the Legislature last Wednesday to give up trying to pass the state budget in the regular session -- which had already been extended two months longer than normal -- after protracted House-Senate bargaining sessions proved futile. GOP lawmakers blocked Democrats'' efforts to stay in session.
The Senate''s Republican leaders see the governor as the best hammer to get a budget fashioned as they want it in a special session. "The governor will have a real impact on the budget -- as he should," Bryant said.
However, McCoy sees the governor as a wedge keeping the House and Senate apart.
"Our constitution says that the House and Senate will get together in a give-and-take atmosphere and send a balanced budget to the governor, who can approve or veto it," McCoy said. "I have to admit that the Senate hasn''t been willing to give very much during the (negotiating) process, and that''s why we''re in a stalemate."
The governor by law is able to exert more control than normal over the Legislature in special sessions. Barbour said he''ll bring the House and Senate back to the state Capitol when he and legislative leaders reach a budget deal for the 174-member Legislature to vote on.
Legislators get extra pay in special sessions -- and some state government employees await whether they''ll have a job in July.
"I don''t know what the future holds, but it will cost taxpayers more and anxiety over services and jobs will build," McCoy said.
Barbour and Republican legislators have been holding firm against Democrats'' efforts to put more money into education.
"The House wants to spend a bunch more money than we need to spend," Barbour said.
"We''re trying to save tens of millions," Bryant said. "If we were negligent ... and went off the cliff -- went into bankruptcy as a state next year -- then I think the taxpayers would say ''how irresponsible'' ... That''s what we''re really fighting for."
However, House leaders say Barbour and his legislative allies are being unnecessarily frugal with state funds and overly pessimistic about future economic trends.
"We''re deadlocked over trying to put aside $60 million for the future, even though we already have almost three quarters of a billion dollars in surplus," McCoy said.
"We''ve got a substantial surplus in ''rainy day'' funds for the purpose of funding state government. We need to use available money for this budget year."
Barbour said the House is trying to put into education too much money that could be used for other areas of government. Combining state funds with federal stimulus funds, he said, Mississippi elementary-secondary schools would get nearly $200 million more than they''ve ever received in a fiscal year if the Legislature followed the Republican governor''s recommendations.
"W e don''t need to go beyond that because there are needs for (the money) in other places -- like Medicaid," he said.
Barbour expects he and the Legislature will eventually agree this month on how state government is funded. But he noted he''s exploring what possible steps to take if budget bills aren''t passed by June 30, when the current state funding pipeline expires.
At least five state legislatures are having to extend their sessions or convene in special sessions to deal with their budgets due July 1, according to Todd Haggerty of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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