No Mississippi budget until at least next week

Published 2:21 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers hope for less boredom and more action on a state budget when they return to the Capitol next week.

Negotiators from the House and Senate said they hope to overcome their differences on Medicaid and other big issues so they can finish working on the nearly $5 billion spending plan to cover state government for the year that begins July 1.

Only about a dozen of the 174 lawmakers are directly involved in the budget discussions, but almost all were at the Capitol for four days this week hoping they’d get a chance to vote on the final versions of spending bills.

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“Thumb twiddling is not one of their favorite sports, and that is what’s been going on,” Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, said Friday.

Negotiators said they’re planning to continue their discussions over the next several days. The full House and Senate will return to the Capitol on Wednesday — the day the legislative session is scheduled to end.

Lawmakers will have to vote to extend their working time when they return.

Budget bills must be passed no later than five days before the end of a session, so Friday would’ve been the last day for action without an extension.

If lawmakers don’t extend the regular session, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour will have to call a special session and he’ll control the agenda. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said Friday he is “not offended by that prospect.”

House leaders tried unsuccessfully Friday to go ahead and extend the session. An extension resolution fell just a few votes short of the two-thirds majority needed.

House Rules Committee Chairman Joe Warren, D-Mount Olive, told his colleagues that even though only a few people are working on the budget, all lawmakers are being criticized for the impasse.

“It makes you look so bad at home,” Warren said. “We’re looking bad, anyway.”

House and Senate negotiators for days have disagreed about whether to put millions of dollars into a reserve fund for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the needy. The fund could be tapped starting in January 2011, when federal stimulus money disappears.

Gov. Haley Barbour also is trying to persuade legislators to revive a $90 million a year hospital tax to help pay for Medicaid. Hospitals are fighting the plan, saying the tax would hurt their finances.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said Friday that House budget negotiators are trying to use money that doesn’t exist.

“You can’t build a budget based on hopes and wishes,” Nunnelee said.

House leaders say the Senate’s budget proposals could lead to layoffs of 2,000 to 4,000 state employees, and they won’t go along with that plan.

As the House prepared to leave for the weekend, Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he hopes the budget negotiation process will be productive before Wednesday.

“To be honest with you, it doesn’t sound positive at all at this hour,” McCoy said.