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Governor, lawmakers must work together on budget

Both Gov. Haley Barbour and the state Legislature came out thisweek with their budget plans for the next fiscal year, and on twolinchpin issues – education and Medicaid – they couldn’t be furtherapart.

The divide between the executive and legislative branches onMedicaid are well known. In the last session, the governor pushedthrough the Legislature a plan to move thousands of Mississippiansclassified as Poverty Level Aged and Disabled off the stateMedicaid plan and onto the federal Medicare roll.

After some consideration – and considerable backlash fromconstituents – many state lawmakers wanted to reconsider, butBarbour was – and still is – gung ho for the plan.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, in its plan releasedthis week, would reverse the Medicaid-to-Medicare shift and keepthe PLADs on the state roll until January 2006, when the federalgovernment will offer more comprehensive prescription drugcoverage.

Prepare for a fierce and drawn-out battle, as the parties aremiles apart on this contentious issue and budgetary matters aresure to dominate the session.

On the education front, again Barbour and legislative leadersmust bridge a wide chasm if any progress is to be made.

Barbour’s budget plan would cut most state agencies’ budgets by5 percent, and schools are only partially spared. While money forinstruction would not face a 5 percent reduction, money for otherschool expenses – everything from transportation to food service tolandscaping – would.

Barbour’s budget proposal does give schools $66.9 million morethan they received this year – although $197.5 million short of the$266 million requested by education officials.

Barbour’s plan: Let schools absorb what cuts they can withoutcutting the state dollars spent on the learning process itself.

The Legislature’s proposal: Fully fund the state’s publicschools through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, afunding formula designed to give each district enough money to meetmidlevel accreditation standards.

But even lawmakers’ budget falls short of what educationofficials have requested, and House Education Chairman BubbaPierce, D-Leakesville, calls their plan merely a “startingpoint.”

The one thing both the governor and lawmakers agree on is thatthe state must follow through with promised teacher pay raises. The8 percent raise will cost the state $95 million in fiscal 2006,but, the correctly reason, a promise is a promise.

The fireworks will fly as lawmakers return to the Capitol nextmonth, and there should be no shortage of political rhetoric aseach side attempts to convince the voting public that its plan ismore sound.

It’s too early in the process and too little is known about bothbudget proposals to make a judgment on which is superior or whichmay ultimately prevail. But as the process unfolds, all would bewise to remember that the state’s habit of spending more than ittakes in must stop – and immediately if not sooner.

This much is clear: If the governor and the Legislature – bothits leadership and rank-and-file – barrel into Jackson with battleaxes waving and lines drawn in the sand, little will beaccomplished beyond raising the public’s ire.