House votes to use rainy day fund

JACKSON — Democratic leaders in the Mississippi House say they want to limit how much can be cut from the state budget, and they’re trying to force Republican Gov. Haley Barbour to dip into financial reserves.

“We’re just trying to soften the blow of the cuts that could be made,” said Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville.

The House passed a bill Tuesday saying Barbour could cut no more than $347 million from the nearly $6 billion budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Barbour says cuts of up to $437 million could be needed. He has already cut $226 million.

The House plan says Barbour would have to take $50 million from the state’s $231 million rainy day fund, and use that money to pad agencies’ budgets. The plan also says he’d have to spend $61 million in federal stimulus money.

That means Barbour could take only about $10 million out of the budget, beyond the cuts he has already made.

Under scenarios the governor presented Monday night during his State of the State speech, he could have to cut another $211 million. He said cuts need to be made soon because it’s more difficult for agencies to lose money as the end of the fiscal year approaches.

Barbour on Tuesday called the House bill “unacceptable” because it would take money from the rainy day fund. He has said repeatedly that he wants to limit the amount taken from the fund because he believes it will have to last several years as the global economy recovers from a deep recession.

“If this is all the House is going to do to meet our constitutional requirement to balance the budget, then I’ll make cuts under existing law this week,” Barbour said, citing a requirement that all programs get the same percentage cut, which he said could result in the release of up to 4,000 prisoners.

Mississippi’s revenues have fallen short of expectations the past 16 months.

State law says the governor can’t cut any program’s budget by more than 5 percent until he has cut every program’s budget by that amount. Barbour has passed the 5 percent mark this fiscal year, and he’s asking lawmakers to give him flexibility to cut some agencies’ spending by up to 10 percent and other agencies’ budgets by smaller amounts.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted last week to give Barbour the flexibility he’s seeking. The House, however, has balked at his request because leaders say deep cuts could hurt education.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said the House is not trying to deplete the state’s financial reserves but leaders believe it makes more sense to spend some of the rainy day fund than to reduce essential government services.

“I’ve heard him say 50 times, ‘If you’ve got a better plan, show it to me,’” Brown said of Barbour. “This is a better plan.”

Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said Tuesday that lawmakers should make budget cuts while they’re in session and not force the duty onto the governor.

“The Legislature has punted,” Snowden said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said he disagrees with the bill the House passed Tuesday. No bill can go to the governor until the House and Senate reconcile their differences.

Senators on Tuesday started working on a separate bill designed to make long-term changes to the state budget process. The proposal would require state agencies to more specifically outline their goals as they seek state funding.

Advocates said the change would make government more accountable. Skeptics said it could transfer too much power to one person by letting the governor transfer money from one agency to another in case of emergencies.

Some lawmakers said that under the current system, agency leaders routinely request budget increases but give too little information about whether their programs are effective. Other lawmakers said the current system works well because budget writers can quiz agency directors during annual hearings.

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