Miss. lawmakers work on details within big budget picture

Published 7:51 pm Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Peace and harmony broke out among Mississippi budget writers Tuesday as they stared at an end-of-session deadline to finish work on a nearly $5 billion spending plan.

“We can get it done and still be out by Friday,” predicted Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona.

A Friday departure would be two days before the three-month session officially ends on Sunday — April’s fool’s day.

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Starting late last week, House and Senate leaders bickered for several days over relatively small portions of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Negotiators said they put aside their broad differences on Tuesday, deciding in general terms on an election-year budget that pumps more money into all levels of education, from kindergarten through graduate school.

“This is a year for education,” said House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

The House and Senate missed their initial deadline to file the final versions of budget bills this past Saturday night. They missed another deadline on Tuesday, but they’re planning to extend the session to give themselves more time to work.

They need the extension because they’re not allowed to pass budget bills within the last five days of a session. But budget writers say it will simply be an extension “on paper,” meaning this is a way to circumvent the five-day rule but it does not force lawmakers to remain at the Capitol beyond this week.

Leaders hope to file the final versions of dozens of budget bills on Wednesday. Then, the two chambers would have to approve the bills to send them to Gov. Haley Barbour.

Gordon, Stringer and a half-dozen other top lawmakers spent several hours Tuesday huddled in Gordon’s office with a dozen Legislative Budget Office staff members — the employees who plug the final, detailed dollar amounts into bills that authorize each program within each state agency.

The legislators made a series of quick decisions about requests they’d been reviewing for the past several months, allocating a few thousand dollars for a youth livestock program and a few million for mental health crisis centers and deciding which state agencies should get permission to hire new employees.

They also discussed some issues that seemed only vaguely related to the budget process. Gordon tried to change the Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks budget bill to authorize private development at Hugh White State Park in Grenada. A proposal to allow private development in state parks passed the House but died in the Senate this session.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, told Gordon: “This can’t go in an appropriations bill.”

Gordon shrugged and said, “I tried.”