Legislative negotiators separated by $103 million

May 28, 2009



JACKSON -- About $103 million is separating the Mississippi House and Senate from a budget agreement as Democrats advocate spending more on education and health care while Republicans want to save money for later in case Mississippi encounters worse financial times. 


The Legislature -- holding its annual session that was supposed to be over nearly two months ago -- remains deadlocked in passing state government''s $19 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. 


The Democratic-controlled House''s leaders want to spend $103 million more than the Senate, which has proposed $51 million less for Medicaid and $43 million less for education. 


"There are many millions of dollars that could be on the table to do the budget," said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi. 


However, the GOP-led Senate and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour say the state must save more money to brace for a worsening economy and future revenue shortfalls. 


"The House is of the belief that we should spend every available dollar today and worry about it later," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. 


Nunnelee wants to hold off spending $60 million Mississippi annually receives from tobacco companies, which agreed in 1997 to pay the money every year if the state would drop its negligence suit against the cigarette makers. 


Nunnelee says the money will be needed for Medicaid in 2011, when federal stimulus funds run out. 


Barbour criticized House leaders for not wanting to build up the rainy day fund. 


"The Legislature has got to decide this is not business as usual. We can''t go out and spend every penny we can put our hands on and not worry about tomorrow," Barbour said. 


However, House Democrats say skimping millions of dollars as Republicans want could cause hundreds of state workers being laid off and government services being curtailed. 


McCoy said its fiscally irresponsible not to spend about $180 million the state could get its hands on to expand health and employment services that would increase to about $500 million when combined with federal funds. 


The Legislature has a Friday night deadline to pass budget bills, but the House and Senate can vote to revise that self-imposed schedule to give them more time. 


Lawmakers returned Tuesday from a two-and-a-half week recess for its annual session that began Jan. 6. Since the Legislature has completed work on bills not related to the budget, most legislators remain idle while budget negotiators haggle in private. 


Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus - who spoke out Wednesday on the Senate floor -- said he''s exasperated about the session''s slow pace while legislators hang around the Capitol with nothing to do. 


"What''s good for us to be staying here going in and out of recess?" Brown said. "The taxpayers are getting tired of this.... It''s wasting valuable time." 


Legislators get paid $109 a day for lodging and eating expenses when the House and Senate are in session -- bringing the daily total to about $19,000 when all members of the 174-seat Legislature are present. 


McCoy urged negotiators to have a "war room" atmosphere to reach a budget deal. "The citizens are watching our inaction. I don''t blame them, but they''re going to blame us individually and collectively," he said. 


Nunnelee and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant -- the Senate''s Republican president -- had a more positive assessment about the negotiations. "I believe we are making good progress," Bryant said. 


"We''ve improved from this time yesterday," Nunnelee said Wednesday. 


However, the Senate and House are actually farther apart than they were a week ago, when their budget differences amounted to only $37 million. They''re now $103 million apart. 


House-Senate negotiators last week had tentatively agreed to a $60 million hospital tax to help fund Medicaid. However, Nunnelee rejected the House''s plan for tying the tax to a commitment not to cut hospitals'' Medicaid reimbursements for the care they provide to recipients. 


Medicaid has a $4 billion-a-year budget and serves about 560,000 poor people.