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Let the (political) games begin

State lawmakers face stiff challenge in hammering out state budget agreement

There will be an 800-pound gorilla lingering in the Capitol when lawmakers convene this week to start the 2010 legislative session, and it will be made of money.

The state will have roughly $4.48 billion to dole out to state agencies and departments in fiscal year 2011, whose spending plan legislators will have to forge in the 90-day session that starts Monday. That is 12 percent less money than the state allocated just two years ago, owing to revenue collections coming up short of estimates for 15 consecutive months as the recession tightens its grip.

“Painful” is how Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, anticipates this year’s budgeting process to be.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said there would have to be “significant changes” to the system of state government, meaning drastic cuts in funding, to make ends meet. 

The 2010 session represents the last session where members will not be forced to campaign for election, at least not full-time. And with the FY2011 ending in the middle of an election year, many members will face constituents with hurt feelings who have seen government services slashed to the bone.

“Everybody that wants money will come in (the Capitol) and every member will want to give it to them. That’s just the nature of the beast,” said Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who will seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2011. Gov. Haley Barbour cannot seek another term.

Legislators will have to walk a fine line between funding everything they possibly can in FY2011, and at the same time preparing for FY2012, when the state’s deficit is expected to exceed $1 billion.

Nunnelee, who is facing incumbent Rep. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, for the right to represent the First District, said this year’s budget has to be crafted with an eye toward the financial skeleton FY2012 is expected to be.

“Otherwise, this time next year I don’t know if we’ll be able to reach a budget agreement,” he said. Bryant warned that the over-extension of the state’s rainy day fund and a less-than-prudent application of one-time money for recurring expenses in FY2011 could lead to mass layoffs and/or furloughs in FY2012.

“Then we’ll have to deal with the political ramifications” when voters head to the ballot box, he said. “A guy’s not going to say ‘I know Phil had to furlough me, but I’m going to vote for him anyway.’ Whether you like it or not, people vote their pocketbooks.”

With the specter of elections next year, there are already some controversial items that are off the table. House and Senate leadership agreed almost immediately at the start of the budgeting process that no new tax increases would take effect in FY2011. There are some fee increases, such as vehicle registration fee hikes and implementing fees for some of the services the Mississippi Department of Agriculture provides.

“Nobody wants to raise taxes,” House Appropriations Committee chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said.

“That’s good news,” said Bryant.

Another is Barbour’s proposal to merge Mississippi’s three historically black universities into one, and to merge the Mississippi University for Women into Mississippi State. House Universities and Colleges Committee chairman Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, has said the bill would die in his committee.

Bryant has said several times leading up to the session that he hopes the budgeting process does not become politicized to the point of gridlock, like last year’s negotiations did when lawmakers were trying to hammer out an agreement over a tax on hospitals to pay for the state’s Medicaid program.

“During campaign year, we’ll run at each other and butt heads, but this is the budget,” Bryant said. “It shouldn’t be used as a political tool. But some folks can’t help themselves, and that includes (Republicans).”

Stringer said the House’s budget leadership would “consider everything the Senate sends over to us.”

Observers will have to wait and see what emerges as the sticking points between the two chambers. The JLBC’s budget recommendation contained no major policy shifts, like Barbour’s executive budget recommendation did with the proposal to merge the universities and pare the state’s school districts by a third.

“It is amazing that the executive budget recommendation, which is usually dead on arrival, got such huge play,” said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State. “The legislative budget didn’t contain any huge surprises, and I think that’s indicative of where legislative budgets go. You have to spread the pain as thinly as you can in an amount that will still get the budget balanced.

“There’s obviously some agonizing and gnashing of teeth to try to get down to the number it’s going to take to make the budget balance but without anybody having to suffer anymore than they absolutely have to.”


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