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Barbour mulling saving, not spending, stimulus money

JACKSON — Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and a bipartisan group of Mississippi lawmakers are considering saving, rather than spending, one of the two pots of federal stimulus money Congress recently approved.

Doing so could make it easier for officials to craft a state budget during the 2011 election-year session when most lawmakers are either seeking another term or running for higher office, and when Barbour — a potential 2012 presidential candidate — is wrapping up his final year as governor.

Lawmakers said yesterday that the state still plans to spend $97.8 million of education stimulus money this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

But, legislative leaders told The Associated Press that attorneys are researching whether the state is allowed to sock away the Medicaid stimulus money and spend it during fiscal 2012, which begins next July 1. Medicaid is a government health program for the needy.

The Obama administration said weeks ago that Mississippi would receive about $150 million for Medicaid, but Democratic state Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson — one of the top budget writers in the Mississippi House — said yesterday that the funding level depends on Medicaid usage. State officials are expecting between $127 million and $130 million.

Several lawmakers said Mississippi will have a bigger need for the Medicaid stimulus money next year than it does now because most other federal stimulus funds are set to disappear next year. Barbour often compares the drop in federal funds to a steep fall off a cliff.

“I think it’s wise to save those funds in whatever capacity we can save them,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said yesterday. “2012 is still the budget year we’ve always said was going to be the most severe.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said he is in “total agreement” with the plan to set aside money for next year.

Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory said he strongly objects to saving any of the stimulus money for later. He said universities are already talking about cutting faculty jobs and mental health facilities are struggling to survive.

“Why on earth are we putting all this money in the bank at the bottom of a recession?” Bryan said Monday. “The effect of this is just to increase unemployment, let alone leave students who won’t have teachers.”

Barbour was in Florida yesterday campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial nominee. He said in a written statement that he appreciates House and Senate leaders’ agreement to use the money next fiscal year, when Mississippi could face a $600 million shortfall in about a $5 billion budget.

Brown said he and other House budget leaders met two days last week with Barbour, legislative attorneys and the governor’s staff attorneys to discuss setting aside some of the Medicaid stimulus money. The lieutenant governor’s policy director also attended, said Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock.

Legislators struggled to write a state budget for the current fiscal year, and they included a contingency plan of how federal stimulus money would be spent if it arrived. Then, two things happened: Congress approved education stimulus money that the state hadn’t expected, and Congress gave Mississippi less stimulus money for Medicaid than state leaders had hoped.

The contingency plan was to do a shell game with the money for Medicaid. Some state money that’s now going to Medicaid would be given to other programs during the current budget year, and the federal stimulus money would replenish what’s taken from Medicaid.

The contingency plan said that the state Department of Finance and Administration, an agency overseen by Barbour, has the power to decide how to spend the federal stimulus money.

Republican Sen. Terry Burton of Newton serves on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. He said Tuesday that although some state programs are pinched this year, agency directors have already figured out how to operate the next 10 months.

“I think everybody’s prepared to get through this year just the way they are, as grim as it is,” Burton said. “It’s going to be a lot worse next year.”


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