JACKSON — A bill to restore about one-fourth of the money Gov. Haley Barbour has cut from Mississippi’s budget has stalled in the Senate after lawmakers voted to spend more time negotiating it.
The Senate voted yesterday to send the bill to conference with House members. Under the bill, lawmakers could use $50 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $50 million from the health care trust fund to restore money to several programs and agencies.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the state’s reserve should be saved for next fiscal year when Mississippi may face an even larger budget hole.
“I will promise you this time next year, you will be hearing weeping and gnashing of teeth saying I wished we had saved some of that money,” Nunnelee said.
Several Senate Democrats urged their colleagues to approve the measure as is and send it to the governor.
Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said fast-tracking the bill would help prevent some layoffs and diminished services. The funding would boost the budgets of the attorney general’s office; district attorneys and staff, the Supreme Court, colleges and universities; K-12 public education and the Department of Public Safety, among others.
“My DA says he’s about to lay off five assistant district attorneys. I hate to see what happens when the numbers come out for our schools. They’ll be laying teachers off left and right,” Tollison said. “This money is not for us to hoard. This is taxpayers’ money and I think we need to use it.”
The Senate was essentially voting on a House plan. The legislation began in the Senate as a bill to give Barbour more flexibility in deciding how much each state agency could be cut to keep the state’s budget balanced.
The House changed the bill last week to allow lawmakers to dip into the $231 million rainy day fund. It would also take $50 million from the health care trust fund, where, for the past decade, the state has put its annual collections from the settlement of a massive lawsuit against cigarette makers.
Currently, the health care trust fund has $200 million. Tollison said the state is set to receive its annual payment of about $80 million later this year.
Tollison made a motion to hold the bill for more debate, but it’s unclear whether another vote will be taken.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, is hopeful some senators will change their vote so the bill can be sent to the governor.
“Maybe tomorrow the people will win and we’ll get some money back into the state agencies for schools, colleges and VA nursing homes, which were severely cut,” Stringer said.