June 29, 2009
JACKSON -- Mississippi''s long-stalled Legislature today is hurrying to have more than 100 budget bills passed so state government can begin the new fiscal year Wednesday with the money needed to operate.
"These are extraordinary circumstances and we need to move as quickly as possible," said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Republican-dominated Senate.
Legislators rushed to the Capitol for a special session Sunday to begin approving more than $18 billion in expenditures.
With Mississippi''s "ox in the ditch" because of a budget impasse so close to the new year''s July 1 start, GOP Gov. Haley Barbour said he decided Saturday to order the Legislature back into session. He had previously said he wouldn''t until he and legislators reached a deal on funding Medicaid.
He gave the green light for the Legislature on Sunday to pass bills to fund the state Department of Transportation -- with its $1 billion budget -- and other state government agencies that get their money from special taxes or fees. With those approved, plans are for the Legislature today to take up bills to fund education, public safety and other services.
However, the governor -- who by law controls the legislative agenda in special sessions -- has prohibited lawmakers from taking up the Medicaid appropriation until the House''s Democratic leaders agree to preserve his budget-cutting power.
Despite no agreement having been reached for Medicaid, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said he''s glad Barbour called the Legislature back to pass the other funding bills.
"It lets all the rest of them go about their business," Chism said.
For state government agencies to be assured of having the money to function, legislators have been told they need to pass all appropriations by Tuesday morning to give Barbour time to go through them before the clock strikes 12 a.m. Wednesday.
"We''re racing to get everything done by Tuesday noon so the governor can get them signed by midnight," Chism said.
However, the $4 billion-a-year Medicaid program could still be hung up past Tuesday.
"I''m afraid (it could be deadlocked), but it may not stay bogged down because the governor said he could run it," Chism said.
State laws authorizing the funds and the very existence of the state Division of Medicaid expire Tuesday, but Barbour said he could keep the health-care program afloat by executive order. However, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood says state law doesn''t let the governor do that.
The Legislature ended its regular session June 3 after the House and Senate couldn''t reach a budget agreement. The budget was supposed to have been passed in late March, but revenue shortages, questions a bout federal stimulus funds and disputes over Medicaid have bogged down legislators.
After convening Sunday afternoon for the special session, the House and Senate worked late into the night passing budget bills in large blocs and cutting corners through the normally slow committee process.
Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, and Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, protested the Senate''s haste in passing legislation initiated by the five-member Senate Rules Committee rather than the 26-member Finance Committee and 26-member Appropriations Committee.
"I know we all feel pressure and we''re doing something to address the time crunch, but ... to give something of this magnitude to Rules seems to be going far beyond the notion of rules," Turner said.
"It looks like we need to rename the Rules Committee the Super Committee," he said.
The Senate voted 27-20 against Brown''s attempt to get the Senate to start over and have the bills assigned to the other committees.
"I am trying to slow it down. We''ll get us a budget by Wednesday, but it''s going to be hard to choke it down this way," Brown said. "You make rash decisions when you''re in a hurry. Let''s bring a good product out here and let''s get the budget worked out the right way."
Rep. David Gibbs, D-West Point, said he hopes the Legislature can finish Tuesday morning.
"That may be wishful thinking," he said. "It ''s going to be very difficult to get it all done."
Barbour said he expects budget bills for most government agencies will be signed into law on time. However, Brown said legislators still have a lot of work to do.