Miss. lawmakers stare at another budget deadline

Published 7:07 pm Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Having blown one budget deadline this past weekend, Mississippi lawmakers find themselves in another serious time crunch.

The House and Senate must approve dozens of appropriations bills for a nearly $5 billion budget by late Tuesday or they’ll face two politically unpalatable choices:

— They can extend their three-month session and face critics who say they’ve wasted time and money.

— Or they can go home without budget but with a guarantee that Gov. Haley Barbour will call them back to the Capitol to finish their work sometime before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Negotiators worked late into Monday night trying to divvy up dollars among everything from public schools to public safety.

“We’re getting real close. It’s just some loose ends,” House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said as he emerged from talks with his Senate counterpart, Jack Gordon, D-Okolona.

The session is scheduled to wrap up Sunday, but budget bills must be approved at least five days before the end. That’s why lawmakers would have to extend their work period if they miss Tuesday night’s deadline.

Republican Barbour said he was “flabbergasted” by House budget writers’ demands that some of his ideas for improving education should not get any money for the coming year.

“I’m never going to be against doing something for schools because somebody else is for it,” Barbour told about 200 business people, school administrators and others at a Monday luncheon sponsored by the Mississippi Association of Partners in Education.

Budget talks stalled in the past few days when House members pushed for an additional $13 million for “at risk” students in kindergarten through third grade, and Barbour and Senate leaders balked at the request. Negotiators struck a compromise to create a committee to study the financial needs to help “at risk” students and children with other learning challenges.

As part of the compromise, House negotiators demanded that funding be taken away from some of Barbour’s proposals — $3 million for dyslexia screening for children in early grades, $2 million to give bonuses to experienced middle-school teachers to act as mentors for new teachers and $5 million for an early childhood initiative.

In an interview at the Capitol on Monday after Barbour’s speech, House Education Chairman Cecil Brown said he and other House budget writers are not trying to hurt the governor but instead are just taking Barbour at his word.

“The message we got was he didn’t want to spend any money on ‘at risk’ because it’s a new program,” said Brown, D-Jackson. “OK. You say you don’t want to start any new programs, why do you want to start $10 million in new programs?”

“At risk” students are those who qualify for free lunch programs. Experts say educating poor children can cost more because many of them start school behind their peers in reading abilities.

Steve Williams, executive to the state superintendent of education, said $68 million of state money and $184 million of federal money already is divided among school districts to help “at risk” students.

It’s rare for Mississippi lawmakers to end a session without finishing a state spending plan. They did so in 2005 for the first time in memory, and Barbour called them back to the Capitol that year for a special session to finish the budget.