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Budget issues likely to force longer session

Uncertainty continued to cloud the legislative budget pictureTuesday as Lincoln County and other lawmakers resumed trying tocraft spending plans for the next fiscal year.

House and Senate negotiators remained millions of dollars apartMonday on budgets for education and a variety of other stateagencies and services. Lincoln County lawmakers did not know ifthere would be any resolution any time soon.

“We’ve really got the House and Senate knocking heads with eachother,” said Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett.

Dist. 53 Rep. Bobby Moak said Tuesday is “another day,” but hepointed to the Senate and Gov. Haley Barbour as the reason behindthe stalemate.

“We’re not there yet,” Moak said. “The Senate has not come upwith anything yet.”

The House voted Monday to extend the session up to 30 days todeal with appropriations measures, Barnett said.

“I would like to think we would not use up the whole 30 days,”Barnett said. “But we’ve got it there if we need it.”

As of late Monday, the Senate had not acted on the sessionextension measure. Dist. 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was leaningtoward that happening.

“I feel sure we’re going to extend the session,” Hyde-Smithsaid. “We’re just going to hang in there and see.”

A lot, though, would depend on whether agreement on budget plansis within reach. The senator said lawmakers would be back”wrestling the bear” Tuesday.

“Right now, there’s nothing on education,” Hyde-Smith said.

The House has passed a bill to fully fund education, althoughcritics point to fee increases and other troublesome aspects of thelegislation. The Senate is supporting a plan that would leaveeducation about $161 million short.

The House and school officials have balked at a Senatesuggestion to tap into local districts’ reserve funds. They say themoney is for emergencies or has been obligated for other needs.

Barnett said superintendents from across the state were expectedto come to Jackson Tuesday to discuss the reserve money situationwith lawmakers.

“That’s money that needs to be there,” Barnett said.

Hyde-Smith said some school districts have unreasonable amounts,in some cases several millions of dollars, in set-aside funds.

“Some districts have much more than 5 percent in reserve,”Hyde-Smith said. “Ours is not one of them.”

Citing conversations with Lincoln County Superintendent ofEducation Terry Brister, the senator said the district was usingpart of its set aside to save teachers’ jobs. She said that is whatdistricts should be doing.

With the chambers at odds over spending plans, Barnett said hehad no idea how the dispute would be resolved

“Maybe we’ll drill for oil on the Capitol grounds,” Barnettsaid.

Moak took issue with the Senate’s and Barbour’s objections tofee increases.

“It perplexes me that the governor doesn’t mind putting a fee onpeople in nursing homes,” Moak said, referring to new bed-relatedcharges proposed by the governor. “He’s not calling that atax.”

Moak said the fee increases amount to about $17 million. Theyinclude higher fees things like one to speed up the car titleprocess, something that has not been raised since 1968, hesaid.

“It’s in the eye of the beholder,” Moak said about whethersomething is called a tax increase or not.

With a cigarette tax increase to fund mental health crisiscenters being shot down, Moak said lawmakers will have to setpriorities on what will be funded. He said lawmakers are gettingclose to the point of cutting budgets.

“That’s just the reality at this point,” Moak said, “and itwon’t be just education that gets cut.”

In setting priorities, Moak mentioned a variety of areas fromthe Mississippi School of the Arts and the Mississippi School ofMath and Science to the highway patrol.

“I think all those things are fixing to be on the choppingblock,” Moak said.

Barnett, though, downplayed a potential budget impact on thearts school, saying it was “taken care of.” MSA officials have saida pending budget plan would provide about $80,000 less next yearthan this year’s $2.88 million budget.

Not making budget resolution any easier are lawmaker illnesses.Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck has been hospitalized, and Barnett mentioned anumber of stress-related cases he has seen in the House.

“The tension is getting to be tough,” Barnett said.