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Lawmakers confident of budget deal

Lincoln County lawmakers welcomed the opportunity to work on thenew year budget but said they were uncertain how much longer thespecial session will last.

Following earlier legislative activity, Gov. Haley Barbour onFriday expanded the session’s call to allow consideration of thebudget of the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Lawmakersfailed to agree on a budget during this year’s regular session.

Lawmakers were optimistic the special session would produce abudget agreement.

“We’re going to work it out,” said District 92 Rep. Dr. JimBarnett.

Even before the governor’s action, District 39 Sen. CindyHyde-Smith said committee leaders had been meeting and talkingabout budget plans.

“We’ve been working on it some anyway,” Hyde-Smith said. “Ithink we’re close to agreement.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak expressed similar comments, but wasa little more reserved.

“I think we’re very, very close to having everything done, maybewithin days,” Moak said.

Others, though, believed the budget and other session work willtake more time.

“I do think we’re doing to be there for several more days,”Barnett said. “I don’t think we’ll get out of there this week.”

Hyde-Smith said when the session will be over is hard to say,but she hoped it could conclude by the end of the week.

“That is being very optimistic,” Hyde-Smith said.

Hyde-Smith said education funding remains as a sticking point inbudget talks.

“I feel that everyone is trying to reach the agreements we needto reach,” Hyde-Smith said.

At last count, she said the House and Senate were about $8million apart.

“The House is still going to hold firm on education numbers,”Moak said.

Hyde-Smith offered some good local news in that the MississippiSchool of the Arts could receive $2.4 million for next year,according to the latest budget talks.

“I feel the arts school is secure,” Hyde-Smith said. “I would bethrilled with that.”

Lawmakers made some progress last week with agreement on how tospend a $100 million settlement from MCI, formerly Clinton-basedWorldCom. The plans divides the money between paying off thestate’s obligation on a failed beef, the Department of PublicSafety for a new trooper class and the University of MississippiMedical Center for new equipment.

“I believe we did the right thing in dividing that up,” Barnettsaid.

Moak said the MCI decision frees up other money in the budget,although he disagreed with the plan.

“I think we should have held some back to make sure the ’06budget was done properly,” said Moak, one of 17 representative tovote against the plan. “I didn’t like the way it was set up.”

One major piece of legislation yet to be considered in the Houseis the governor’s Momentum Mississippi economic developmentpackage. The Senate approved the measure last week.

Moak was unsure when House members would take up theproposal.

“I don’t suspect we will until the budget is out of the way,”Moak said.

Barnett sounded skeptical about the legislation’s chances ofpassage.

“It’s going to be a fight,” Barnett said.