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Range of issues at top of 2006 legislative agenda

Last month, Gov. Haley Barbour presented his proposed fiscal year 2007 (FY07) budget, which maintains essential government services in all 82 counties while assisting with the recovery, rebuilding and renewal of Mississippi post-Katrina.

Uncertainty about the amount of federal dollars that will funnel into Mississippi made crafting the budget “almost impossible,” said Barbour, and he strongly recommended state lawmakers to “not attempt to consider an FY07 budget until revenue data through February is available.”

Highlights of the FY07 executive budget recommendation include:

• No tax increase.

• Level funds for state general fund agencies; the proposed recommendation is $4.7 billion.

• Provide necessary management tools to state agency chiefs by establishing lump sum budgets as standard for all agencies.

• End the use of one-time money for recurring expenses made possible in the past by the cash balances of special fund agencies, like the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

• Address the known deficits in the FY06 budget for debt service and the Department of Corrections and set aside $10 million for other potential deficits in FY06.

• Follow the legislatively established schedule of expenses from the Health Care Expendable Fund (HCEF). The only non-recurring revenue in the FY07 executive budget recommendation is the $40-million difference between the FY07 HCEF expenses and the FY08 HCEF statutory funds transfer.

“With any additional revenue, I recommend meeting necessary state match requirements for federal public and individual assistance as required under the Stafford Act or other application federal laws, increase state support for education, especially higher education, and give state employees a pay raise,” said Barbour. “Other areas of the budget, such as Medicaid and other social service agencies, will certainly need to be addressed as decisions are made by the federal government.”

Fully funding the state’s seven mental health centers is another legislative priority, said Senate Secretary Joe Ammerman.

“Not on the priority list, but set up to take a hard look at: the Institutions of Higher Learning, because we really gave the state colleges and universities a hard lick the last two years,” he said. “However, everything done will be predicated by what happens at the federal level. Until then, I don’t see anybody doing anything new.”

House Speaker Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) said the House will present an early packet of measures, which will include better funding higher education.

“We’re extremely cognizant that higher education — community colleges and universities — represent the great motor that moves this state, and we’ve got to properly fuel it,” he said. “We haven’t been doing that like we should because of our financial situation.”

McCoy said House members “will make every effort possible for a reasonable, needed pay raise for state workers,” who have not seen one in five years.

“Also, we’ll continue to be extremely concerned about Katrina homeowners,” he said. “And a lot has been said about the eminent domain case before the U.S. Supreme Court. I think you’ll see us handle that issue this session because many members are crossing party lines and philosophical boundaries to make sure our property owners aren’t faced with having their property taken away.”

McCoy, who supports the Wellspring economic development project in Northeast Mississippi, said he’s still concerned about overall economic development progress in the state. Business leaders in Union, Pontotoc and Lee counties want $14.5 million in state bonds to match $4.5 million in local funds to buy 1,400 acres and prepare it in hopes of making it more attractive to an automaker. Barbour has said he does not support funding such a large project before a deal is made.

“The House members have not only a right, but also an obligation, to present ideas on economic development, and we shouldn’t have to wait for the governor to wave his magic wand,” said McCoy. “We’ll consider everything the governor asks for, and most of it we’ve acted on positively, but we’re not limited to his propositions.”

Ammerman said the buzz around the State Capitol is “everyone’s hoping it will be a calm, non-contentious, non-partisan, do-the-best-we-can-do session and go home.”
McCoy, who often butts heads with Barbour, agreed. “I hope this will be a most compatible and agreeable time,” he said. “Mississippi needs that.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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