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Barbour wants cuts, lawmakers unsure what to trim

JACKSON — House and Senate budget writers say Gov. Haley Barbour wants them to shave $77 million from the spending plan they’re proposing for next fiscal year, but it’s unclear which agencies or programs would take the brunt of the cuts.

Lawmakers are in the final days of the 2011 session and face a Saturday deadline to file a spending plan for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1.

Barbour met privately yesterday with Sen. Doug Davis and Rep. Johnny Stringer, who chair the appropriations committees in their chambers. After the meeting, Stringer and Davis said Barbour had instructed them to reduce a compromise budget by $77 milllion before he’ll approve it.

Barbour said the House wants to spend more than $500 million in non-recurring revenue, an amount that includes reserve funds and special funds.

“I’ve asked them to reduce that overspending by $77 million. If they comply with my request, spending in FY12 will still be $54 million above their own December number,” Barbour said in a statement, referring to legislative leaders’ vote on a budget recommendation last year.

Stringer, D-Montrose, said Barbour wanted the reductions in mental health and education, including K-12, universities and community colleges. But Davis, R-Hernando, said the governor didn’t specify where the reduction should be made.

Stringer said the House and Senate members already have voted to fund K-12 education at $2 billion, the same amount schools are receiving this year. Barbour’s proposal would fund education below the current year’s level, he said.

Stringer said he couldn’t get Barbour’s proposal passed in the House.

“We were 85 percent through with the budget when Haley Barbour blew in. I can compromise, but I can’t go $77 million. The governor is going to have to give,” Stringer said.

Davis said Barbour wants the compromise figure to be about level with the spending for the current fiscal year. Davis said he was working on the spending plan Wednesday, but wouldn’t say which programs or agencies he would target for reductions.

“I’m still using the pencil. I’m not using the pen yet,” Davis said.

Legislators said they were planning to work through the weekend on the budget. The $5.5 billion budget blueprint for the coming year includes $4.6 billion of general fund revenue, which comes from a wide array of taxes and fees. About $900 million comes from other sources, including federal stimulus money, lawsuit settlements and financial reserves.

Frank A. Yates, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, urged lawmakers to stand firm on the K-12 budget. Yates said most of the state’s school districts are facing a funding crunch. He said many teachers are earning about $3,000 less than they did last year because of furloughs, reductions in salary supplements and insurance changes.

Yates said school teachers only receive $200 a year for classroom supplies because the rest of the money allocated for supplies is diverted elsewhere.

“Teachers have to pay for their own supplies,” Yates said Wednesday.

Stringer said the public schools couldn’t handle additional cuts.

“Hundreds of teachers have been laid off, class sizes have increased and academic programs have been eliminated over the past three years,” Stringer said in a news release. “Cutting the education budget as Gov. Barbour has proposed is the equivalent of a tax increase – it will simply shift the tax burden to local school districts, many of which could be forced to increase property taxes on homes and vehicles just to survive day to day.”

Stringer said in the release that House members also voted this year to fund mental health at $254 million, up from the $243 million for the current fiscal year. He said cutting mental health would “force the closing of all mental health crisis centers in Mississippi and leave several hundred state employees without a job.”

Source: Associated Press


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