JACKSON — Political old-timers say they don”t recall state government ever starting the fiscal year in July without the Legislature and governor having approved the budget.
Three months after they were supposed to have passed budget bills to keep government running for another year, Gov. Haley Barbour has ordered lawmakers back today into special session to resume work on appropriations he and House-Senate leaders have been haggling over for weeks.
“So far as I know, this is — I believe — unprecedented,” former Gov. William Winter said of the impasse, which has left the state of Mississippi close to being without funds needed to provide services just three days before the new budget year begins Wednesday.
“Never has there been a budget battle that has gone on so long,” Winter said.
However, the Mississippi Legislature”s 1968 session did go on — for seven months until early August. The House and Senate struggled with a revenue shortfall and a new governor to pass tax and spending bills a month after the July 1 start of that fiscal year.
“No Money For The State Employees ” reads a headline to The Associated Press” July 1 article that reported government workers were told to be in their offices, even though they had “no legal right to spend money.” Winter — a former legislator and state treasurer who had just lost the 1967 race for governor to John Bell Williams — said he remembers that long session. But he didn”t recall it being stalled over the budget.
Appropriations were held back in committee for various reasons, according to The AP”s account. The delay was primarily blamed on a dip in state tax collections and Williams being slow in presenting his highway and education proposals.
That session 41 years ago lasted from Jan. 2 to Aug. 9 — the longest legislative gathering in Mississippi history. Legislative records show lawmakers were passing budget bills throughout July after the fiscal year began. Appropriations then were done for a two-year period because the Legislature met biennially rather than every year like now.
Leading the Senate”s effort was Bill Burgin of Columbus, now deceased, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.
He and House Appropriations Chairman Edgar Stephens had earlier been “afraid to bring the bills to the floor because they didn”t know how much money was going to be available,” states The AP”s account.
“I sure wish the Legislature would get off its rump and get things moving,” said an unnamed state department head quoted by The AP.
The main hangups for the 2009 legislative session have been re venue shortages, questions about federal stimulus funds and disputes over the state”s $4 billion Medicaid program.
Former Lt. Gov. Brad Dye said he”s never witnessed such a budget deadlock like what”s occurred between the GOP-controlled Senate allied with Barbour and the Democratic-dominated House of Representatives.
“I don”t recall ever being in a situation like we”re in now,” said Dye, who led the Senate as lieutenant governor from 1980 to 1992 and was head of the old Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial Board in 1968.
He didn”t remember the budget being the dominant issue of that year”s drawn-out legislative session. The 1968 Legislature approved a tax bill for Williams” education improvement program but rejected a gas-tax increase he wanted for road construction.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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