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Area leaders say budget top concern

Area lawmakers said the 2005 legislative session beginningTuesday will be one filled with “unique challenges,” withaddressing a tight budget the most daunting task.

“The budget is going to be tough,” said Dist. 53 Rep. BobbyMoak, D-Bogue Chitto.

State and legislative officials are looking at being around $700million short of an anticipated $3.8 billion budget for the newyear that starts July 1. Lawmakers must also deal with deficits forthe current fiscal year.

“It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for months: ashortage of funds,” said Dist. 92 Rep. Dr. Jim Barnett. “There’sgoing to have to be some cuts in state spending.”

Barnett, R-Brookhaven, said he was impressed with Gov. HaleyBarbour’s plan to cut most state agencies by 5 percent. A jointlegislative budget plan is also forecasting reductions.

“It will be a very difficult session,” said Dist. 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith.

The senator, D-Brookhaven, said there are many plans indevelopment to address the budget crunch.

“Hopefully, we can take the best of all of them and come up witha unified plan,” she said.

Hyde-Smith said funding priorities will be determined by whowins the respective budget battles and who has the best argumentsand reasoning. The senator said it will take teamwork to solvebudget issues.

“It will be an extremely tight budget year, the tightest thatmany of the veterans have ever seen,” the senator said.

Education funding and Medicaid will get much attention fromlawmakers.

“We’re going to wait and see what we’re looking at when we getthere, but there’s going to be some hard decisions,” Hyde-Smithsaid.

Lawmakers, particularly those in the House, and Barbour were atodds much of 2004 over Poverty Level Aged and Disabled Medicaidbeneficiaries. A court order preventing PLAD cuts expires at theend of January.

“We have to do that relatively quickly,” Moak said aboutaddressing the Medicaid issue.

Moak said he is committed to funding education and Medicaid.While acknowledging the possibility of cuts, Moak said lawmakersare looking to find additional revenue.

“We’ve been working on some ways to put money together while wewere out of session,” said Moak, although he could notelaborate.

Hyde-Smith pointed out the possibility of a reduction in thePLAD percentage to be eligible for Medicaid. Health care servicesare required for senior citizens whose income is at 75 percent ofthe federal poverty level, but Mississippi provides services forthose at 135 percent of the federal poverty level.

“No other state in the nation does that,” said Hyde-Smith, whodid not offer a prediction on a new percentage level.

Regarding education, Moak said he not for cuts.

“When we cut state funding to the school districts, it’s made upby the local taxpayers,” Moak said, citing property tax increasesas one example. “It’s a behind-the-back tax raise.”

He said many districts raised taxes last year. He said taxpayerscould see that happen again to a larger degree next year.

Hyde-Smith also supported fully funding education. However, shealso called for adjustments at the state Department ofEducation.

In the fall, Hyde-Smith sent teachers in her district a letterand a copy of a newspaper article pointing out $30,000-$40,000 ayear raises for state department administrators. She said there isa problem when administrators are getting those kinds of raises,but schools don’t have enough money for paper and othersupplies.

“I thought it was the right thing for every teacher in mydistrict to hear from me,” Hyde-Smith said.

Funding for the Mississippi School of the Arts remains animportant topic for many in the Brookhaven area. Barnett andHyde-Smith were cautiously optimistic.

“We’re still in there,” Barnett said. “I would like to get someprivate funds as well.”

Hyde-Smith agreed.

“I feel like it will definitely be funded. Getting there willtake the creative minds of several lawmakers combined, ” thesenator said, adding that she thinks a proposal for the arts schoolto be overseen by the University of Southern Mississippi will belooked at very closely during the session.

To fix budget problems, Moak suggested cuts could be coupledwith some fee increases proposed during the 2004 session. Hementioned a $5 car registration fee that has not been raised inmany years.

“There are a lot of things that haven’t been looked at,” Moaksaid.

For years, an increase in the state’s 18-cents per packcigarette tax has been proposed. Barnett has prepared a bill for a32-cents per pack increase, but a $1 per pack increase has alsobeen proposed.

“It looks like there’s a bigger push for it this year,” Moaksaid about a pack tax hike. “If you see a tax passed, that would beit.”

Among legislative items of personal interest, Hyde-Smith saidshe had pre-filed several bills. Most, she said, deal withextension of law repealers and other agricultural “housekeeping”issues.

“There’s a lot of things to keep your eye on and be responsiblefor as chairman,” said Hyde-Smith, who heads the Senate AgricultureCommittee.

As committee leader, Hyde-Smith will be involved in fixing astate dilemma over a failed beef processing plant. The $43.5million plant used a $35 million state loan, but closed after onlythree months in operation.

“We have several buyers interested in that facility,” saidHyde-Smith, adding that she opposed the project from the beginning.”That’s going to take a lot of time.”

Barnett was considering a few ideas, but hasn’t filed the billsyet.

The representative said he planned to introduce againlegislation to make not wearing a seat belt a primary offense.Currently it is secondary offense, meaning motorists have to bestopped for another traffic violation first.

Barnett also mentioned some issues involving the medicallicensing board. He indicated, though, that lawmakers’ attentionwill be occupied with other topics like the budget.

“I think the fewer the bills filed this year the better,”Barnett said.