Miss. lawmakers back after Memorial Day for budget

Published 3:36 am Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers will return to the Capitol after Memorial Day to try to finish a nearly $5 billion state budget for the year that begins July 1.

They hoped to finish the job during their three-day meeting this week. Negotiators said they need more time to examine tax-collection trends, debate a possible hospital tax to help fund Medicaid and evaluate how federal stimulus money will affect state government.

House and Senate leaders often argue as pressure builds during the final weeks of budgeting, but they insisted Friday the process is harmonious.

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“No devious motives on either side,” said House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi.

Legislators usually finish a budget by early April.

This year, a slumping economy and an accompanying drop in state tax collections prompted lawmakers to leave the Capitol on April 1 with the budget in limbo. Then, they cited many of the same reasons they’re still using.

A small group of House and Senate negotiators will meet periodically before both chambers return May 26. That’s five weeks before the new budget year begins.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said Friday the delay in finishing the budget might put some school districts “in an awkward position” because they need a firm idea of how much money they’ll receive before they can offer contracts to teachers for the academic year that begins in August.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant has been involved in state government since 1992 — first as a state representative, then as state auditor and since last year as the Senate’s presiding officer.

“This is the worst budget situation that I’ve seen,” Bryant said.

Gov. Haley Barbour said this week that some agencies could receive 6.5 percent less money in the coming year than they’re getting now. Under Barbour’s proposed budget, smaller cuts would be made to elementary and secondary schools, community colleges and universities.

“Everyone in this room has said a thousand times that education is our top priority,” Barbour, a Republican, told lawmakers during a budget briefing this week.

Some students touring the Capitol on Friday said they want state officials to put more money into education. The students were honored for high scores on a national Latin exam.

Ulysses Alridge, a 17-year-old junior at Simmons High School in Hollandale, said some textbooks arrived late in the academic year and students often pay for everyday expenses.

“Some students have to bring their own tissue to go to the restroom. When we go to make copies in the office, we have to bring our own paper from home because the school doesn’t have enough paper and ink…. We’re still using computers from like five or seven years ago,” said Alridge, who plans to graduate early and start premedical studies this fall at Mississippi College.

Bianca Johnson, also a 17-year-old junior at Simmons High, said the school’s science labs are in bad shape. She said beakers there are broken and the goggles and aprons they use are old.

“That’s not safe enough,” said Johnson, who wants to become an oncologist. “I feel we are the future so invest your money into us and we’ll be able to produce great things.”