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Senate proposes out-of-balance budget

JACKSON — As Mississippi lawmakers prepare for final budget talks, the Senate comes to the table with a proposed spending plan that’s out of balance.

That chamber’s top budget writer wasn’t happy about it, but several lawmakers said the imbalance is no big deal because the House and Senate proposals will be rewritten in the next couple of weeks as the two chambers craft a compromise plan.

Lawmakers are working on a roughly $5.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. They’re having more difficulty than usual because a weak economy has sent state revenues plummeting for the past 18 months. Few agencies will receive as much money as their directors requested.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 30-19 to put about $30 million more into elementary and secondary education than Senate leaders originally proposed. They did not, however, cut $30 million from other budget bills. Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee said that puts Senate negotiators in an awkward position.

“I am not opposed to giving money to our schools. But I am opposed to an unbalanced budget,” said Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who’s running for a north Mississippi congressional seat.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, sponsored the amendment to increase the education spending proposal by $30 million — a move that makes the Senate’s school spending proposal nearly identical to that of the House and puts pressure on negotiators to protect education funding.

Bryan said only a few of the 174 lawmakers get to participate in the final round of budget talks.

“This is the one opportunity you’re going to have as an individual senator to set a priority,” Bryan told his colleagues.

Most of those voting for the amendment were Democrats, although a few Republicans supported it, too.

Hours after the education spending bill passed, Republican Sen. Briggs Hopson of Vicksburg proposed taking $30 million from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to pay for the proposed education spending.

Hopson’s proposal was defeated when only six senators voted for it and 40 voted against. Several senators said Hopson’s proposal would hurt a bridge-repair program, but Hopson said he wasn’t trying to do that. He said he simply wanted to fulfill Nunnelee’s request to balance the Senate’s overall budget proposal.

“Look,” Hopson said, “I’d love to have a money tree out there.”

March 24 is the deadline for House and Senate negotiating panels to reach final compromises on budget bills. The full House and Senate have a March 26 deadline to pass the bills.

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