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Lawmakers vote to change state budget process

JACKSON — The Mississippi House voted yesterday to change the state budget process in a way some members call unfair and others call accountable.

The change is part of a resolution that would set the joint operating rules of the House and Senate for the four-year term that started last month. It says any lawmaker who wants to add money to a program, such as education, must cut that same amount from other programs.

“It’s just good, sound budget policy,” said House Rules Committee chairman Mark Formby, R-Picayune.

Until now, people who wanted to increase spending in one area didn’t have to say where other cuts should be made. House and Senate leaders negotiated to cut other programs or to pull money from financial reserves. Some spending proposals died.

Formby said members from both political parties, in the past, have pushed to put more money in particular programs without saying where the money would come from.

Legislators are already required to ultimately write a balanced annual budget.

Supporters say the new plan would help keep numbers balanced throughout the several months of the budgeting process. Opponents say the plan is too limiting because it would not allow members to add money to programs by taking the cash from any of the state’s several financial reserve funds.

“I really believe this is the biggest bunch of bunk I’ve seen in my 29 years up here,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.

With Republicans now controlling both chambers of the Legislature, Democrats are fussing the loudest about the proposed budgeting change. But several Democrats said yesterday the change could limit the powers of any lawmaker to seek more money for projects in their home districts. They specifically mentioned the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven, which is in the district of Republican Rep. Becky Currie.

Currie was among the Republicans voting for the change.

The resolution passed the House 72-48 yesterday. It awaits consideration in the Senate.

The state budget is passed each year in more than 100 bills that spell out the funding for various agencies. Half the bills start in the House and half start in the Senate. Midway through the process, the chambers exchange bills for more work. At the end, a few negotiators from each chamber huddle and decide on the final versions of bills, which are then sent for approval of the House and Senate before going to the governor.

Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, was one of the top budget writers in the House the past several years, when Democrats controlled the chamber. He said the proposed change is unworkable because the House isn’t allowed to amend bills that are in the Senate, or the other way around. That means it’s impossible for a House member to propose cutting funding from any specific agency if that agency’s budget bill is being considered by the Senate.

“This could be one of the gigantic ‘situations all fouled up’ that you’ve ever seen,” Brown said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said it’s too easy now for members to say they support keeping millions in the state’s rainy day fund while also trying to pad the budget by pulling money from the fund and steadily reducing its balance.

Frierson said “It takes a lot more intestinal fortitude” for a member to publicly say they’re willing to cut one agency’s budget to give money to another program.

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