May 27, 2009
JACKSON -- The House and Senate still haven''t agreed on a state budget amid increasing frustration about the deadlock for funding state government services for the people that provide and receive them.
"The teachers and the people need to know where they stand. I know its frustrating for them. It''s anxiety for all of us," said Rep. Esther Harrison, D-Columbus.
Legislators returned Tuesday from a two-and-a-half-week recess with the budget still not reconciled after nearly two months of limbo.
"It''s basically wait and see," said Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, one of the negotiators trying to reach a budget compromise for the fiscal year that starts in July.
The Republican-controlled Senate is pushing for budget cuts the Democratic-dominated House says are too deep and will cause hundreds of state employees to lose their jobs.
The major sticking points in getting the $19 billion budget done deal mostly with the state''s $4 billion Medicaid program. The House and Senate can''t agree on a hospital tax to help fill a budget deficit in the health care program that serves poor people.
The Senate also wants to hold back spending $60 million and save it for 2011, when federal stimulus money dries up and the state treasury could be desperate for money. The House accuses the Senate of being too miserly when the state needs the money now. The Senate, in turn, accuses the House of putting off hard financial decisions now that will be even more painful in the future.
The House''s Democratic leaders said they''re exasperated about the lack of progress on reaching a compromise.
"I''m frustrated on behalf of the citizens of this state," said House Speaker Billy McCoy, who depicted senators as uncooperative and disinterested in forging a compromise. "We''ve delayed and delayed and delayed."
However, the Senate''s Republican president gave a positive assessment of the "civil level" of the budget-negotiation conferences.
"It''s been a very cooperative relationship with the House of Representatives," said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant. "The conferees continue to work ... on a regular and continuing basis."
The Legislature plans to dig in and not take another long recess like they''ve done twice in this annual session -- now nearly two months past the originally scheduled adjournment date.
"We''re going to stay here until we get a budget," Bryant said.
Turner said the budget logjam reminds him of the 2002 tort-reform deadlock between the House and Senate. That standoff over legislation to limit lawsuits lasted more than two months before they reached an agreement.
"Frustrations brought about concessions that -- absent this frustration -- probably would not have been agreed to," Turner said.
With the budget year beginning July 1, school administrators need to know this week how much money the state will give them, said state Education Superintendent Hank Bounds. They''re trying to plan their budgets and make hiring decisions as are other government officials.
"We''re at the point now we need the process to move forward and the budget acted on," Bounds said.
The last time the Legislature was this late in getting the state budget done was in 2005, when it was adopted at the end of May. It was in a special session after the House and Senate ended its regular session that year without a budget accord.
A group of nationally certified Mississippi teachers were among the government workers and administrators at the state Capitol on Tuesday urging legislators to pass the budget. The teachers lobbied legislators not to cut their $6,000-a-year salary supplements.