Mississippi budget writers see tough balancing act

Published 11:50 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2009

As Mississippi lawmakers prepare to return to the Capitol this week, leaders from both ends of the political spectrum say writing a state budget will be tougher than usual because of the stagnant economy.

“There really isn’t any good news in terms of the state revenue,” Democratic Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson said Monday.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour said late last week that state tax collections could fall $400 million short of projections for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

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“It’s going to take strong leadership and tough decisions to build balanced, prudent, conservative state budgets for the next several fiscal years,” Barbour said in a video news release.

Legislators are searching for ways to avoid budget cuts in the next several weeks for public education and Medicaid — two big programs that were untouched when Barbour took millions of dollars from other agencies’ budgets earlier this year.

The current state budget is about $5 billion and lawmakers say the budget for the year that begins July 1 will be slightly smaller.

Legislators met from early January until early April, then took several weeks off to give budget writers a chance to analyze economic trends and determine how the federal stimulus package might affect Mississippi government.

The House and Senate return to work Wednesday afternoon. Brown, speaking at a press luncheon Monday, said it’s difficult to predict how long it might take to get the current year’s budget into shape and to complete work on the budget for the coming year.

Brown is chairman of the House Education Committee and is one of the top budget negotiators. He said the federal stimulus money is “a huge help,” but it won’t solve all the state’s problems as unemployment rises.

Mississippi is receiving an estimated $2.5 billion to $2.8 billion through the stimulus. The money covers 27 months, from October 2008 through December 2010.

Barbour announced weeks ago that he is rejecting about $56 million from the stimulus because he does not want Mississippi to extend unemployment benefits to people seeking part-time work. Barbour said last week that he stands by that decision because he believes businesses would have to pay higher unemployment taxes in two years when the stimulus money runs out.

Brown said Monday that Barbour was wrong to reject the money when people are losing their jobs.

“These are not lazy people. These aren’t people who were not working,” Brown said. “These are not people who chose not to work. These are people who were working and lost their jobs.”