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Barbour: No need for first-week heavy lifting on budget

Gov. Haley Barbour says there’s no need for lawmakers to jump out the first week of a three-month session and try to write most of the nearly $5 billion state budget.

The Republican spoke to more than 1,000 members of the Mississippi Economic Council on Thursday. His remarks were aimed at Democratic House leaders, who tried unsuccessfully to get votes on education funding and pay raises for teachers and state employees on Tuesday, the session’s opening day.

“I would suggest that if you ran your business that way, you wouldn’t have enough money to pay your MEC dues,” Barbour said to the business people in Jackson for an annual day of lobbying.

Barbour, who’s running for re-election this year, said one of his priorities will be making sure only 98 percent of projected state revenues are put into the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

A state law enacted during the early 1990s says 2 percent of revenues are supposed to be set aside in a rainy day fund. During tight economic times the past several years, officials have budgeted 100 percent of projected revenues and dipped into the balance of the rainy day fund.

Sales tax collections have shown a healthy increase the past several months as people in south Mississippi are buying cars, refrigerators and building materials for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

Several lawmakers say they expect the budget to be the dominant issue during this election-year session.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, was pushing what he called “one of the strongest beginning legislative packages in the history of the state.”

Within the first few hours of the session, House committees approved pay raises for teachers and state employees, full funding for a public schools budget formula, more money for universities and community colleges, more money for public safety and mental health programs and a state subsidy to help coast businesses pay for insurance through the state wind pool.

McCoy said the issues have been discussed publicly for months, and he doesn’t want education to be shortchanged in last-minute budget talks.

He has sharply criticized the group of mostly Republican lawmakers who used a procedural move to block the first-day votes on high-profile bills that would shape much of the debate on the budget.

Lawmakers who blocked the quick votes on the bills say they wanted more time to consider the issues. McCoy hasn’t said when the votes might be taken.

Barbour says he supports fully funding public schools and giving pay raises to teachers and state employees, but there’s no reason to consider any part of the state budget in isolation during the early days of the session. He says that by March, lawmakers will have a clearer picture of state financial trends.

Most of the detailed budget work is usually done in March, during the final weeks of the session.

The bills are House Bills 239, 238, 241, 242, 244, 245 and 243.