Budget-related bills among dozens to meet legislative deadline

Published 4:50 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2008

House and Senate Appropriations committees passed bills Tuesday designed to create a funding cushion for next year’s budget.

“Right now we’ve got a lot more needs than we have in the general budget estimate. We’ve got to come up with a lot more money,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.

The Senate bill raids several pots of money outside the regular revenue stream, including the criminal justice fund and the unclaimed property fund. The bill also intercepts the tobacco payment made to the health care trust fund and suspends the 2 percent set aside for the state’s rainy day fund.

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In addition, the bill takes $82.5 million from the state’s hurricane reserve fund that was created to provide match money for federal grants used for storm recovery projects. Nunnelee said the federal government didn’t require the state to provide a match for Hurricane Katrina projects so the money wasn’t used.

With all those adjustments, lawmakers would have an additional $306 million to spend above the fiscal year 2009 budget estimate of about $4.9 billion, said Nunnelee, adding that the budget maneuvering is nothing new.

“It’s always been done Saturday night in conference and nobody knows what’s going on,” Nunnelee said. “I’m doing it out in the open.”

Nunnelee said dipping into the special funds must be done to help pay for K-12 public education, community colleges and universities.

“We haven’t even started working on the expense side of the equation,” he said.

Tuesday was the deadline for committees to vote on general bills that originated in their chambers.

The House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that delays the $38 million repayment to the health care trust fund, said Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

Stringer said another bill approved Tuesday places a freeze on hiring and equipment purchases at state agencies. Stringer said the bill would free up about $20 million. He said the House also wants to suspend the 2 percent set aside for the state’s rainy day fund.

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, argued against delaying the repayment to the trust fund.

“It may look convenient and nice right now, but two years from now you’re going to regret it,” Frierson said. “The best way to get out of a hole … is to stop digging.”

Economists predict slow revenue growth in Mississippi for next several months, which means lawmakers will have a tight budget on which to draft spending plans for state agencies during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Several agencies have requested extra funding next year, but the current budget estimate barely provides enough for level funding across state government. The tight budget could mean taxpayers pay higher fees for services.

Stringer said the House is opposed to tapping into the special funds, which is how Gov. Haley Barbour had proposed lawmakers plug budget holes.

Stringer said if the House considers taking money from the hurricane fund it would be to offset the cost of wind pool insurance for Gulf Coast residents, who are still struggling to pay for coverage more than two years after Katrina.

He said the House might also eye the reserve fund for Medicaid’s ballooning budget.

Medicaid is facing a $92 million deficit this fiscal year. Lawmakers have been told the program needs an extra $168 million in funding for next fiscal year.

Some of the other bills passed out of committees on Tuesday would:

— Create a Web site the public can use to track agency spending, government contracts and bond proceeds. The site would be created by the state Department of Finance and Administration.

— Create a pre-kindergarten task force to study early childhood education and recommend ways to implement a program.

— Require all school superintendents to be appointed and all school board members be elected.

— Give the media and public more access to law enforcement incident reports if an investigation is no longer ongoing.

The bills are Senate Bills 2149, 2912, 2728; House Bills 609, 763, 725, 438.