May 12, 2009
A state of limbo. That''s the best description of the effect of the Mississippi''s Legislature''s failure to agree on a state budget has on education, health care and other essential services. The House and Senate need to get over their differences and pass the budget. They need to do it when they resume their protracted annual session May 26.
After a five-week recess, lawmakers returned to the Capitol last week to finally pass a cigarette tax increase and resume efforts to pass the state''s $19 billion budget. They agreed on the tax but not the budget.
The House and Senate do have their differences, and it''s tough to reconcile them. But time is running out. State government agencies must prepare for the fiscal year that begins July. They need to know how much money they''ll have for the services they provide. School districts are especially pressed. Now is the time for them to hire teachers for the next school year. They shouldn''t be put too far on the brink.
As has been the case in past years, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives wants to spend more money on education than the Republican-led Senate.
House leaders say they don''t want to "devastate" schools like the Senate''s spending plan would. Senate leaders say they prefer taking a "conservative" approach. Its leaders acknowledge its budget cuts are "not pretty" but prudent in these difficult economic times.
Another point of contention is the $90 million hospital tax the Senate wants to help fund the deficit-plagued Medicaid program. The House will agree only to a smaller tax.
The state treasury for the coming year is getting about $443 million in federal stimulus funds to temporarily soften the blow of state tax declines. But most of that must be earmarked for Medicaid and education - and it still falls short of what''s needed for the long term.
With the budget left undone, the House and Senate spent about two hours Thursday passing separate resolutions urging the federal government not to attach so many strings to how states spend money. The debate centered around the U.S. Constitution''s 10th Amendment, which declares that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for states.
The resolutions provided the otherwise idle House and Senate an issue to argue about, but we wish the time could have been spent passing the budget. It should have been finished in late March. The Legislature should make sure it''s complete by the end of May.