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Tough budget work awaits lawmakers

Lincoln County lawmakers agree money will be tight during thelegislative session that starts Tuesday, but they offered differingopinions on some other matters.

“The biggest thing is trying to make ends meet with the budget,”said Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. “You’re not going to see a lotof extras, by any means.”

Funding issues awaiting lawmakers include a $120 millionshortfall in Medicaid, plus addressing a requested $70 millionincrease in that area, and a $100 million shortfall in revenuecollections from the current budget year, said Dist. 53 Rep. BobbyMoak. The representative said he and his colleagues are not lookingforward to the budget task, but he was confident it could beaddressed.

“There’s some hard choices to be made,” Moak said. “If you can’tmake the tough decisions, you don’t need to be there.”

The session that starts Tuesday is scheduled to last threemonths. Moak said lawmakers should have a good idea of thefinancial situation by mid-March.

Moak said lawmakers are studying a variety of ways to meet thetight budget situation, but a tax increase is not aconsideration.

One possibility that has been mentioned is dipping into thestate’s tobacco lawsuit settlement fund. Moak said he hopeslawmakers can make decisions based on revenue coming into thestate, spend only the tobacco fund interest and not theprincipal.

“I hope we won’t touch it, but it’s an easy pie to get into,”Moak said.

In education areas, Hyde-Smith said funding for a $72 millionteacher pay raise is secure and, despite some earlier rumblings,she was optimistic the Mississippi School of the Arts will be allright as far as funding. The school on the Whitworth College campusis scheduled to open in the fall of 2003, but funding to hire staffand meet other operation issues is needed.

“I think the arts school will be just fine,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Moak and Hyde-Smith took slightly different approaches to thelingering congressional redistricting battle. The representativesaid there’s an “outside chance” state lawmakers could revisit theissue early in the session while the senator believes the issuecontinues to be court-bound.

“I think the courts are going to have to decide,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Mississippi is losing a congressional seat because itspopulation grew more slowly than some other states.

A Hinds County chancery court judge recently approved aHouse-backed, Democrat-supported plan for redrawing the state forfour congressional districts instead of five. Republicans areappealing and have also filed a federal lawsuit over thematter.

Moak said he supported the House plan because it kept southwestMississippi together.

“I don’t have a lot of problems with the districts she drew,”Moak said about the Hinds chancellor’s action. “It probably givesus a stronger voice in the district.”

Moak said redistricting was frustrating because individuallawmakers don’t have much input into the issue. He indicated thatthe House and Senate leadership each encouraged their members toback their respective plans.

“Redistricting is one of those issues that overcomes the normalways you come to compromise on legislation,” Moak said.

Another round of redistricting is expected later this year whenlawmakers redraw their own district boundaries. Moak expected thatto come up either during the session or this summer.

“We will lose a seat in southwest Mississippi,” Moak said,citing growth in the DeSoto County area and on the coast. “Thatwill, in effect, give them another seat.”

Moak said southwest Mississippi is mostly rural, which meansdistricts must cover a lot of land area to take in enoughpeople.

“It’s going to make for some very large districts in this partof the state,” Moak said.

Tort reform possibilities have also been getting somepre-session attention. Hyde-Smith said a public outcry is neededfor the rumblings to become a reality.

“The momentum is there,” she said. “If it’s going to happen,it’s this session.”

Moak, however, had a different opinion.

The representative said the tort reform issue is being driven byinsurance companies and characterized it as a doctors versuslawyers issue. While the insurance companies point out problemswith jury awards, Moak said hearings earlier this year showed theywere impacted because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and adownturn in the economy.

“They were having other problems because of these other thingsalso,” Moak said.

Tort reform chances could rest on which committee gets the billand whether it is brought up for discussion. Moak said possibletort reform bill destinations include insurance, public health or ajudiciary committee.

“Personally, I don’t see much moving in that area,” Moaksaid.