JACKSON — The Legislature returned last week to pass the state”s long-delayed budget after a five-week recess, but it got put off again because House-Senate negotiators remain deadlocked in disagreement.
They can”t concur on how much money should go to education, health care and other public services.
Grappling with a budget that was to be finished March 27, the Legislature decided Friday to recess again until May 26 to give negotiators more time to reach a compromise.
“I don”t know what the biggest one is, but they do have some hang-ups,” said Rep. David Gibbs, D-West Point.
The Democratic-dominated House wants to spend more, but the Republican-controlled Senate allied with Gov. Haley Barbour want to spend less.
“The budget offered by the governor and Senate will devastate (local schools and state colleges). The House has a balanced budget without destroying the state financial plan,” House Speaker Billy McCoy said in a statement issued by House Democrats.
However, the Senate”s Republican leader said the state”s declining tax collections – brought on by a deep economic recession – require a “conservative” budget.
“This is the worst budget situation that I”ve seen … We”re going to have to take some serious cuts,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate.
The Senate”s budget proposal offered last week called for spending about $5.87 billion in state funds – $40 million below what the House put forward.
The Senate”s budget plan has many state agencies getting cut 10.6 percent below what they were allocated last year.
“This is not a pretty budget. It is balanced,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
However, Nunnelee did say more money could be freed up and the cuts not so deep if the House would agree to impose a $90 million hospital tax to help fund Medicaid. This has been a major point of contention between the two legislative chambers as they wrangle over the deficit-plagued program”s high costs of providing health care for the poor.
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.
“The (federal) stimulus money is masking an enormous revenue shortfall,” said Barbour, who warns of a potential budget deficit of more than $500 million in 2011.
In session since January, the Legislature recessed last month and delayed adopting the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
McCoy and Bryant summoned legislators back Wednesday hoping to have a budget compromise but knowing it was not likely close at hand.
“We just need some time,” McCoy said.
“We had hoped to get a budget resolution, but it”s been a difficult week,” Bryant said.
While the House and Senate do have sharp fiscal and political differences, their leaders say they”re trying hard to smooth them out.
“I believe we have a better working relationship now than we ever had – even in these difficult times,” Bryant said.
Gibbs said he had hoped the legislative leaders would have a budget ready for the House and Senate to adopt last week.
“I think the week was a waste of time,” he said of the three-day session.
However, it did produce a 50-cent-per-pack increase in the state cigarette tax to generate an estimated $106 million more next year and help preserve discounts on the price of car tags. The House and Senate on Wednesday overwhelming approved the bill to set the cigarette tax at 82 cents.
Barbour vetoed cigarette tax-increase bills the Legislature sent him before, but he plans to approve this one – marking the first time since 1985 this tax has been raised. It takes effect next Friday. The old 18-cent tax had been the country”s third-lowest state rate.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.