Budget impasse awaits returning Miss. lawmakers

Published 2:17 am Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers come back to the Capitol on Tuesday after a two-week break and nothing has changed with the budget impasse they left behind.

With time running short, House and Senate money managers remain at loggerheads on a budget that was supposed to have been resolved during the recess. Negotiators were to have spent part of the Memorial Day weekend in budget talks, but no progress was reported.

At the end of last week, House and Senate leaders did agree that they would not levy a tax on hospitals to prop up Medicaid. The proposal was abandoned when legislators could not settle on a dollar amount for the tax.

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Each side blamed the other for an impasse that threatens a final deal on a $5 billion spending plan to take effect July 1.

“They’re talking about laying off doctors, nurses. Cutting the Health Department when we have the swine flu in the state,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said Friday of the Senate leaders. “I mean, mental health. It’s going to turn mental health patients out on the street. Lay off highway patrolmen. The House refuses to do that.”

Senate leaders said the House is ignoring potentially serious budget problems that could arise in a year and a half, when federal stimulus money disappears. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, wants to set aside $60 million for a reserve fund that could be tapped in January 2011.

“The issue is, are we willing to make difficult choices today in order to avoid some impossible dilemmas in 2011,” Nunnelee said.

Stringer said there is no need for spending cuts when the state has nearly $1 billion in various reserve funds — in a rainy day fund, Katrina relief fund and Health Care Trust Fund — to tap during bad times.

“We don’t know what 2011 is going to be,” Stringer said. “If we’re going to have to lay off people, let’s wait until next year. At least they’ll have time to be looking for another job.”

For public schools, state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds said a budget compromise is essential.

“It is critical we get an appropriations bill,” he said. “Districts have to contract with teachers. They have to know how many teachers to hire. Plus, there is the length of the budget process they must go through.”

Bounds said local school boards cannot build a budget by July 1 if they do not know how much in state funds they will receive.

Meanwhile, some coast lawmakers fear the $20 million they thought was headed for windpool insurance may hang in the balance.

“What we’ve been told in the last week is that the Senate no longer has room for that in their budget,” said Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula.

Jones and Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said windpool insurance funding must remain a top priority.

“When you’re talking down here on the coast, the number one hurdle is insurance,” Watson said. “So maybe we’re going to have to move some money around somewhere else, but that money needs to stay here.”

The wind pool is the insurer of last resort for those who need wind coverage in high-risk areas — such as the post-Hurricane Katrina coastal counties — where no private insurer will write policies.