JACKSON — The state Legislature toiled until midnight to pass budget bills to ensure state government began the new fiscal year today with money.
“We shouldn”t be here at the last minute, but we were able to patch it all together,” said House Education Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.
With the exception of two state agencies that regulate telephone and power companies, the House and Senate sent Gov. Haley Barbour all the funding bills they were supposed to have finalized three months ago.
This includes approval of Mississippi”s $5 billion Medicaid program — the most contentious and costly budget that”s had lawmakers and the governor hung up for months trying to reach a compromise on how to keep the deficit-plagued health care system operating.
The funding limbo had put health care providers and the 600,000 poor people they serve in a high state of anxiety.
“This ought to solve that worry,” Senate Public Health and Welfare Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said as the Senate passed the Medicaid bill last night.
The special legislative session that began Sunday wrapped up Tuesday with lawmakers voting on the last budget bill – the state Highway Safety Patrol”s money — 10 minutes before the midnight deadline.
“It”s not the way I would prefer to do this. But we got the agencies funded,” said Senate Business and Financial Institutions Chairman Gary Jackson, R-Kilmichael.
“It has been a long, difficult struggle,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who leads the Senate.
The Medicaid funding bill includes a $60 million-a-year hospital tax that could go up to $90 million in two years. House-Senate negotiators also agreed to preserve some of the budget-cutting authority the governor had been demanding for when Medicaid encounters deficits, but the governor accepted limits on how much he could cut.
The House approved the Medicaid measure last night with a 72-40 vote –just barely surpassing the 60 percent majority required for tax bills. Most black representatives voted against the bill because of its cost-containment measures.
Its passage was stalled last night for more than two hours when an angry lawmaker against the legislation waged a protest by exercising his right to have the 82-page bill read aloud by House clerks.
The 52-member Senate then unanimously approved the bill as senators hurried to have it passed by midnight.
The Legislature ended its regular session June 3 after the House and Senate couldn”t reach a budget agreement for all of state government. It was supposed to have been made in late March, but revenue shortages, questions about federal stimulus funds and disputes over Medicaid have bogged down legislators.
Faced with the prospect of chaos if state government began the new year today without its appropriations, Barbour ordered the Legislature back Sunday for the special session. He had earlier said he could operate state government without the Legislature passing the budget on time.
The House and Senate were in session each of the past three days late into the night to pass more than 100 bills ensuring state agencies have their money by today.
“If you would have told me last week that we could get the entire state budget adopted in three days, I never would have believed it. But we got it done,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.
While the Legislature has been struggling with revenue shortfalls due to the economic recession, the finalized budget has about $250 million more in state funds than what was appropriated in 2008. This is due in large part to new cigarette and hospital taxes along with the federal stimulus funds the U.S. Congress provided earlier this year to help states cope with the financial downturn.
The budget was also helped by a $40 million windfall from an antitrust lawsuit Mississippi settled with Microsoft, the computer software maker.
“The dire layoffs and huge budget cuts — none of that happened. That”s only because the attorney general came up that $40 million,” said Brown, one of the House”s chief budget writers. “We were also able to pass taxes that nobody liked — the cigarette taxes and hospital taxes.”
However, he said some state government agencies are getting “substantial cuts.”
The House and Senate gave final approval Tuesday to $27 million going to the state”s depleting car tag reduction fund, which is suffering a shortfall because of sluggish car sales tax collections.
Many legislators say $27 million is not enough to ensure car tag prices don”t go up, but House-Senate negotiators rebuffed bills to put another $37 million into the fund.
The Legislature also approved a 25-cent-a-pack tax increase on generic-brand cigarettes to generate an estimated $9 million a year. This is in addition to the 68-cent tax increase enacted in May on all cigarettes to generate about $106 million a year.
The House and Senate disagreed over an effort to transfer the powers of the state Public Utilities Staff to the Public Service Commission. House leaders want the PU Staff — headed by a director appointed by the governor — to be placed under the direction of the elected three-member PSC.
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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