Miss. lawmakers adopt cautious budget blueprint

Published 1:28 pm Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Mississippi lawmakers on Tuesday adopted a tight budget blueprint for the year that begins July 1, saying they’re trying to be cautious because of the uncertain economy.

Lawmakers’ budget proposal is based on a $4.5 billion general fund, but that number is padded to $6.1 billion with federal stimulus money and other sources, including the annual payment from a 12-year-old settlement of a massive tobacco lawsuit.

With experts anticipating stagnant revenues, the state would spend somewhat less in the coming year than it will end up spending this year after multiple rounds of current-year cuts.

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The numbers are more dramatic when comparing the beginning of the current year’s budget — before cuts — to the numbers for the coming year. That shows some agencies taking a 10 percent year-to-year cut.

“This is probably the most uncomfortable budget I’ve had to vote on. It’s just one of those that we’ve piecemealed together, given the circumstances we’re in,” said Republican Terry Burton of Newton, one of 14 members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

The plan adopted Tuesday is just a start. The full Legislature will convene in January, and all 122 House members and 52 senators will get to vote on a final budget in the coming months. The finished product typically contains many ideas from the Budget Committee and a smaller percentage of ideas from the governor.

The bipartisan Budget Committee plan ignores some of the more contentious cost-cutting proposals from the spending plan Republican Gov. Haley Barbour released last month, including his idea of merging eight public universities into five.

Mississippi increased its cigarette tax earlier this year, but neither the governor nor the top lawmakers are proposing tax increases for the coming year.

The legislative plan would set or increase some fees for specific government services, including some testing or licensing done by the state departments of agriculture and environmental quality.

“If you use state government, I think you ought to pay for it,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose.

Legislators propose saving some money by eliminating 3,600 vacant positions in state government and limiting public employees’ travel.

The legislative plan also includes a one-year amnesty program to let people or businesses pay overdue taxes without penalties. Some Budget Committee members criticized the amnesty, even as they voted for a plan that includes it.

Burton said he doesn’t like “rewarding people who cheat on taxes” for the state to get a quick infusion of a few million dollars.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant defended the tax amnesty proposal, saying it could help people who want to clear their records but can’t afford the interest or penalties.

“I see it as a break to small businesses,” Bryant said.

Bryant estimated the amnesty program could bring the state $35 million. He said he’d like that money to be spent on a new computer system for the state Tax Commission to replace a system that is outdated and close to collapsing.

Tax Commission director Ed Morgan opposes the amnesty plan. The Associated Press obtained a copy of a memo Morgan sent to Stringer on Tuesday, saying the plan “encourages others to avoid paying back taxes in the future, because they will wait for another amnesty rather than paying what they owe.”