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Budget plan headed to Barbour's desk

JACKSON — The Mississippi Legislature on Wednesday approved a plan to restore about one-fifth of the money Gov. Haley Barbour had cut from the current state budget.

The plan passed the Senate 47-0 and the House 115-2. Barbour is expected to sign it into law.

“I hope this closes the books on FY 2010. It’s been a rough year,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said Wednesday.

The bill that passed the House and Senate would restore $82 million of the $458.5 million Barbour has cut.

Separately, lawmakers said the governor has agreed to give $4 million of federal stimulus money to community and junior colleges. That money was not in the bill because the governor decides how it’s spent, not lawmakers.

That brings the budget restoration to $86 million, although Barbour has said more cuts might be needed before the fiscal year ends June 30. The budget started last July at nearly $6 billion.

Under the plan approved by lawmakers, more than $37 million would go back into K-12 education, including $2 million for nationally certified teachers; $4 million would go to mental health; $1.7 million to public safety and $16 million to the Department of Corrections.

Because of the weak economy, Mississippi’s tax collections have fallen short of expectations for 18 months in a row.

Nunnelee said the budget restoration plan ensures that the Department of Corrections won’t have to remove state inmates from county jails. Sheriffs have worried about losing the $20 per inmate per day, and the free labor that the inmates provide.

House and Senate negotiators had been at odd for several weeks about how to restore some of the money cut by the governor.

Barbour vetoed an earlier plan that would have taken $79 million from the state’s financial reserves to plug back in to several agencies’ spending plans. Barbour said the $79 million plan would have given too much to schools and not enough to prisons.

The Senate upheld his veto last week, and talks began on another plan. Negotiators agreed late Tuesday on the $82 million plan that the Senate passed Wednesday.

The new plan takes $58 million from a health care fund that was established in the late 1990s to hold Mississippi’s annual payments from settlement of a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies. The plan also uses millions in federal stimulus funds.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, on Wednesday angrily denounced a negotiation process that he said took too long. He said the Republican governor and Barbour’s allies tried for weeks to block or minimize the restoration of money for public education, while Democrats in the House and Senate sought to get as much as possible for schools.

Bryan said the final agreement on funding for schools “is due to those brave senators who fought and fought and fought and stood up” and not because of “those who voted for the other side and now wish to claim victory.”

In the House, Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said she’s unhappy that the plan restores only a fraction of the money that has been cut from the departments of health and mental health.

One of the negotiators, Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the process of restoring cuts was “imperfect” and left many people unhappy.

“We had to come to some sort of compromise or we were going to run out of time to help anybody,” Brown said.

Lawmakers are working on a separate budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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