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House gives Bryant authority to use reserves

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

House Democrats and Republicans had differing goals Wednesday – the second day of a special session where ultimately legislators agreed to give Gov. Phil Bryant additional authority to tap into state reserves to plug budget holes.

House Democrats also sought to deal with anticipated problems facing the budget for the next fiscal year. House Republicans wanted to deal solely with the expected deficit in the budget for the current fiscal year, which ends at midnight Thursday.

While the two sides struggled back and forth for more than three hours Wednesday, in the end the Republican majority voted down all the Democrats’ efforts.

Primarily along party lines, the House voted 72-38 Wednesday to give Bryant additional authority to transfer funds from the Working Cash Stabilization Fund during the final two days of the fiscal year to balance the budget.

The Senate passed the proposal Tuesday – the first day of the special session – and went home. House Democrats used procedural moves Tuesday to block efforts to take up the proposal, saying they wanted more time to learn about the budget issues facing the state before debating the bill.

The Republican leadership blamed the House Democrats for extending the special session an extra day. House Democrats countered they would have been willing to debate the issue later Tuesday after garnering information on the budget from meetings with the state’s financial leaders.

After the special session concluded, Bryant, continuing the blame game, said, “It’s regrettable that the grandstanding of the House Democrats cost taxpayers an additional $30,000. I am grateful to the leadership of the Senate and the House for doing their job and allowing me to do mine – balance the state budget.”

The special session was needed because state revenue collections have fallen short of projections – most likely by more than $200 million.

Bryant already has transferred $45.2 million from the rainy day fund and made cuts totaling more than $60 million. But it is estimated that an additional $60 million in reserves will be needed to offset the sluggish revenue collections. Bryant needed legislative authority to make additional withdrawals from the rainy day fund.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said the Legislature should have dealt with the shortfall during the regular session, which ended in April.

“It is our job to appropriate,” she said during what at times were heated exchanges with House Appropriations Chair Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville. “This body should not allow for a back-door ploy.”

Democrats said the budget problems could be much worse for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Friday. Various agencies already have announced reductions in services. Democrats tried to offer amendments to add funds for the upcoming fiscal year for the departments of Health and Mental Health, but Republicans, who hold a three-fifths super majority, easily disposed of the amendments while at the same time limiting debate.

While acknowledging problems with the upcoming budget, Frierson said the special session was to deal with “closing the books” on the current budget year.

“We’re back in January,” he said. “You are going to have some problems. We will work them out.”

Much of the debate centered around the tax cuts given in recent years. Frierson said the tax cuts since 2012 totaled at least $140.1 million and would grow to $291 million next fiscal year and would continue to grow after that as additional tax cuts are phased in.

“If we had that extra $140 million…” the cuts would be less, said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. Frierson said in recent years the revenue growth has exceeded the amount of the tax cuts, but conceded Johnson’s point.

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