Pressure mounts for lawmakers

May 31, 2009



JACKSON -- State lawmakers return Wednesday for their stalemated 2009 session as pressure mounts for them to pass the state budget or be forced to give up and see Gov. Haley Barbour wrest control in a special session. 


The Legislature''s prolonged annual session is set to end Wednesday, and Republican legislators said they''ll block the Democratic majority''s efforts to extend the session if negotiators haven''t reached a compromise by then. 


The Democratic-controlled House and GOP-lead Senate have been locked in disagreement for weeks in passing state government''s $18 billion budget, which was to have been approved two months ago. 


"I''d prefer we get it over with now. But, if we can''t, we need somebody to break the logjam -- and that person would be the governor," said Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus. 


House-Senate negotiators will be under the gun to reach a budget compromise by Wednesday in what one House leader said is a "last-ditch chance" to produce something for the Legislature to vote on this week. 


Barbour said he hopes the House and Senate do overcome their differences and promptly pass the budget. 


"But, if no agreement has been reached by the time the 2009 regular session expires on Wednesday, I will call a special session when the conferees do reach an agreement," Barbour said in a statement issued by his office Friday. 


An end to the Legislature''s five-month-long session without funding state government would enable the Republican governor to have more control over the budgeting process. By law, he dictates what bills the Legislature can take up in the special session. 


"I''m not offended by that possibility," said GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the Senate''s presiding officer and Barbour''s chief legislative ally. 


The Senate and Barbour are against the House of Representatives'' push to spend more money in the fiscal year that starts July 1. 


At the heart of the dispute are the Republicans'' demand for setting aside $60 million for another year. Democrats say this would bring unnecessary budget cuts and cause up to 4,000 state government employees to be laid off. 


The House and Senate are also clashing over a hospital tax Barbour wants to impose to help generate more money for Mississippi''s deficit-plagued Medicaid program 


The Legislature can avert the governor''s special-session directive by voting to stay past Wednesday, but that requires a 67 percent majority of the House and Senate. The House couldn''t reach that threshold Friday when it voted 76-42 to extend the session to June 10. 


Most of the 49 Republicans voted against the extension -- depriving the House of the 79 votes needed to pass the measure. 


Legislators should not want the governor to seize control of the budgeting process by letting the current session end, said House Majority Leader Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville. 


"Under the state constitution, we look to our Legislature to balance the budget. An extraordinary session is not designed to balance the budget," Ellis said. "If we adjourn this session without balancing the budget, we have breached the constitution -- a wrongful act." 


House Rules Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, said ending the session without a budget would just make all legislators look incompetent in the eyes of their constituents. 


"They''re going to hang us all with the same rope," Warren told the House as he urged colleagues Friday to extend the session and avert the need for the governor to take over. 


"It looks so bad at home. (People will say) it took the governor to come in and straighten this out," Warren said. 


"It''ll be a lot of politics involved," House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said of a special session. 


In 2005, a deadlocked Legislature did give up passing a state budget, compelling Barbour to call them back for a special session in late May. This was the first time in modern Mississippi history the state Legislature ended a session without a budget to keep government operating. 


During that 10-day session, Barbour gradually doled out bills the Legislature could consider. He presented them in a way that pressured legislators to first do bills he wanted that were not related to the budget, and then he attempted to impose more restrictions than the governor normally has over how much money can be appropriated. 


Barbour can decide what bills the Legislature can bring up in special sessions, but he can''t shape their final results. 


"We would not roll over and play dead. ... He can''t make us vote for what he wants us to vote for," Ellis said. "Why play these silly games in the first place?" 


With the budget year beginning July 1, administrators, teachers and other government employees -- along with the people they serve -- want to know now how much money the state will give them so they can plan their budgets and make hiring decisions. 


"The people are in disarray right now. They don''t know what it is they have to work with. It''s a disservice," Ellis said.