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Miss. lawmakers enter session without roadmap for budget talks

Mississippi lawmakers have lots of names for their initial, proposed state budget: It can be a blueprint or a roadmap or something that sounds like “elbow.”

Regardless of what they call it, lawmakers will start their 2007 session without a plan endorsed by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Even longtime lawmakers say it’s the first time in memory for this to happen.

It’ll be a bit like setting off on a long road trip without the big, coffee-stained Rand McNally flopped open in the passenger seat. Legislators still hope to reach their destination of Finished Budget, but they might get off course, take a few unnecessary turns and hit some potholes along the way.

“Ultimately, we’ll work together and get a budget,” an optimistic Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck said as a preliminary round of budget talks stalled last week.

Because of sharp disagreements over school funding, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee missed a Dec. 15 deadline to adopt its blueprint. The document usually guides the full House and Senate during the final months in a nearly yearlong process of deciding how much to spend on everything from schools to prisons to Medicaid.

The final version of the budget is supposed to be approved by early April, and the new state fiscal year starts July 1.

Back to that “elbow” thing. It’s Legislative-ese for “L-B-O,” or Legislative Budget Office.

Some lawmakers use “elbow” interchangeably with Joint Legislative Budget Committee. The two entities are different, but it’s hard to be picky about language in a Capitol where people routinely ask for a “physical” note rather than a “fiscal” note.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee consists of elected officials. The elite group has seven members from the House and seven from the other end of the building — six senators and the lieutenant governor.

The Legislative Budget Office is made up of some of the hardest working employees in state government. They’re the behind-the-scenes folks who analyze the plethora of what-if scenarios that elected officials consider while divvying up tax dollars.

Here’s how “elbow” gets tossed about in budget discussions:

One lawmaker stands up and says the state should spend X-number of dollars on a particular program. Another waves a piece of paper from the Budget Committee and protests that “elbow” recommended Y-number of dollars — a smaller, or larger, amount.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, who’s on the Budget Committee, has been on the receiving end of that exchange. When he was on the House floor seeking more money for education, a lawmaker with different ideas waved the “elbow” plan and mentioned that Flaggs had endorsed it.

That scenario weighed strongly on Flaggs this past week as he and other House members on the Budget Committee argued for a plan that would fulfill the mandates of the Mississippi Adequate Education program, the complex funding formula for elementary and secondary schools. Senators countered that if schools get that much money now, other state programs could go begging.

A day after the budget talks stalled, the state Department of Education released revised figures for what would be considered full funding for MAEP — and the number was $33.9 million smaller.

Gov. Haley Barbour says some House members are playing politics with education funding.

Mississippi legislators have long ignored governors’ ideas. But, Barbour made his deadline to submit a spending plan. And because his is the only document lawmakers will have when they convene next month, some of Barbour’s ideas could elbow their way into the final budget.