Leaders must address state’s budget problems

Published 6:00 am Monday, January 5, 2004

The bright sun of a new legislative session shines Tuesday aslawmakers return to Jackson for a four-month term. Following hisinauguration later this month, new Gov. Haley Barbour can expect a”honeymoon” period with the legislature.

However, Barbour and lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck andnew Speaker of the House Billy McCoy, will soon have to get down tothe serious business of ridding the skies of dark clouds on thehorizon and red ink in the state budget.

A possible tax increase looms as the darkest cloud, but stateleaders have been near unanimous in saying that’s not going tohappen.

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So-called “sin” taxes, such as a hike on tobacco products, havebeen mentioned. However, those could wind up being nothing morethan blowing smoke this term.

If solutions aren’t coming in the form of higher taxes, thatmeans the solution will be in cutting costs. Some lawmakers believethere’s still plenty of government waste to cut.

Medicaid and prisons may have to go under the knife.

Lawmakers will face a delicate surgery as they maneuver to notscare the elderly and other constituents who receive Medicaid’sservices. They also will not want to appear as being soft on crimeshould any reduction in the “85 percent rule” for jail terms becomea reality.

Education’s forces, which were dealt a setback with Gov. RonnieMusgrove’s defeat, will be after lawmakers to not reduce theirshare of the budget pie and they will at least ask for a largerportion. Lawmakers can point to last year’s “fund education first”promise fulfilled and a built-in teacher pay raise this year asevidence of their commitment to state students, teachers andschools.

While the task is daunting, the time has come for leaders totackle state budget woes in a fiscally sound and responsiblemanner. Mississippians deserve to expect that they are up to thechallenge.