Miss. lawmakers end regular session with no budget

Published 2:44 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

Mississippi lawmakers will be back in special session sometime this month to try finishing a nearly $5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

They ended their regular 2009 session late Wednesday without meeting a midnight deadline to approve spending for everything from public schools to prisons. Efforts to extend the session failed.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate blamed each other for the breakdown, and some lawmakers warned government services will be in jeopardy unless a budget is adopted in the next two weeks.

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Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said it would be disastrous for the University of Mississippi Medical Center to close or for all state employees to stop receiving paychecks and state retirees to stop receiving pension payments.

“It’s serious now,” Brown said of the slow-moving budget process. “It will be a critical problem June 15.”

House negotiators said they thought they were close to a deal three times on Wednesday, but they said senators rejected the proposals after meeting with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. Senators said they were trying to be responsible with taxpayers’ money.

Barbour offered to add millions to his plan for funding public education, but his latest proposal still fell significantly short of what House Democrats were seeking.

“He’s been very actively involved in trying to achieve some solutions,” Barbour spokesman Buddy Bynum said Wednesday night before the budget talks failed.

Barbour has said he will call lawmakers back sometime this month for a special session. That will give the governor more control over what they consider because he sets the agenda for any special session.

A special session will cost the state roughly $13,000 more per day than a regular session, because every legislator would receive $75 a day in special session pay.

Dozens of education advocates roamed the Capitol’s marble hallways Wednesday wearing red-and-white stickers that said, “Budget now” and “No special session.”

Legislators usually finish writing a budget by early April, but they gave themselves more time this year so officials could analyze how millions of dollars in federal stimulus money might affect Mississippi government.

The House and Senate started a recess on April 1, and returned to the Capitol May 6-8 to enact a cigarette tax increase. They were back for four days last week and made little progress on the budget.

The House on Wednesday tried — and failed — three times to adopt a resolution that would have extended the regular session. For several hours after the resolution failed the first time, most legislators were left with little to do as a small group of House and Senate budget negotiators met sporadically to discuss their differences. The second effort failed just before 10:30 p.m., and the third an hour later.

Senate Republicans complained that House Democrats were trying to spend money that doesn’t exist. House Democrats grumbled that Senate Republicans were bowing to the governor’s wishes.

“Right now, our House colleagues have taken the attitude, ’We want to spend every available dollar we can get our hands on today and let’s let tomorrow take care of tomorrow,”’ Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, told his colleagues late Wednesday.

Barbour and Senate negotiators want to put $60 million into a reserve fund that could be tapped starting in January 2011, when the federal stimulus money for Medicaid disappears.

Democratic leaders in the House said setting the $60 million aside could lead to state employee layoffs or deep cuts starting July 1 in health care and other services.

“When you talk to your constituents, let them know that we’re protecting the elderly and the children that are served by Medicaid,” Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, told the House as midnight approached.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, alluded to Barbour’s plans to speak this month in Iowa and New Hampshire — two states with early presidential voting contests in 2012. Barbour can’t run for governor again when his second term ends in 2011. He said last week that he has no current plans to run for president, even though he has considered it.

Flaggs told reporters that a budget breakdown would hurt Barbour nationally: “How you going to run for president, shutting down the entire state?”