Miss. lawmakers still arguing over shape of budget

Published 5:02 pm Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mississippi legislators planned to continue their budget talks Thursday after failing to meet their original deadline to file final, compromise spending plans.

House and Senate leaders are trying to divvy up $5 billion for the year that starts July 1.

“I think we made some significant progress,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said even after it was clear that lawmakers would miss their Wednesday night budget deadline.

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Legislators could still finish their session on time — by April 19 — if the money minders come to a consensus soon.

After final versions of bills are filed, the 122-member House and 52-member Senate will get to vote. Then the bills would go to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

There were a few certainties:

— Teachers will not get pay raises, not even the half-year plan that the House had discussed earlier this session.

— Many state agencies will not get all the money they want.

— Medicaid will start the new fiscal year with some uncertainty because a proposed budget solution relies on approval of the federal government, and getting that approval could take months.

Medicaid is a health program for the needy, aged, blind and disabled and for low-income families with children. It covers about one in every four Mississippians. For every $1 Mississippi puts into the program, the federal government adds nearly $3.

Medicaid is almost $100 million short for the fiscal year that ends June 30. And it needs an additional $250 million for the coming year.

The House and Senate are both considering a Mississippi Hospital Association proposal that would put a tax on hospital beds that are not filled by patients covered by Medicare, a federal program for the aged. The tax would help the state leverage federal money for Medicaid — but that’s the proposal that needs federal approval.

The House also is looking at additional taxes on cigarettes and liquor, but the Senate is not.

Mary Troupe, executive director of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, said tens of thousands of Mississippians would be in a quandary if Medicaid’s budget problems are not fixed.

“Medicaid is good medicine in Mississippi and it’s good business in Mississippi,” Troupe said, noting that many doctors and hospitals rely on income from the program.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said there was still disagreement about how many millions of dollars to put into the state’s rainy day fund, which provides a financial cushion in tough times.

Barbour and the Senate are pushing to fill up the fund at about $380 million — an amount equal to 7.5 percent of the current year’s revenues in the general fund, the largest state-funded part of the budget.

“The governor wants to fill it up. It can’t be $1,000 short or $2,000 short,” Stringer said.

Nunnelee said budget writers are trying to be cautious because “there are some storm clouds on the national economy.”

Wednesday did not have the usual harried atmosphere of a legislative deadline day. The House spent 45 minutes honoring athletes and teachers. Late in the afternoon, many lawmakers left the Capitol to attend a seafood cookout sponsored by the coast legislative delegation and paid for by lobbyists.