Lawmakers frustrated in session delay

Published 5:00 am Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Mississippi Legislature recessed Wednesday for 30 days toseek guidance from the federal government on the use of stimulusmoney, leaving many of the state’s biggest issues unresolved andlocal legislators mostly frustrated.

The overall state budget for fiscal year 2009 remains unresolvedwith a $300 million deficit, while the fiscal year 2010 budget andits $400 million deficit are likewise incomplete. Looming stateissues like the cigarette tax, Medicaid and the hospital tax arealso unresolved, and will remain so for at least one month whilelawmakers await instruction on the state’s multi-billion dollarstimulus appropriation and the guidelines for spending it.

“We didn’t do what we should have done this entire session,”said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, who said all theHouse’s Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to prolong the sessionWednesday. “Pathetically, we were begging to stay. And to walk offand not get the job done was … well, I don’t know the word for’more pathetic.'”

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Currie does not believe the Legislature should take 30 days offto await instructions on spending the stimulus money, saying mostof those instructions are already known. She said $1.8 billion ofthe state’s $2.8 billion stimulus appropriation will be earmarkedfor health care and education, leaving lawmakers with $1 billion toplug budget holes.

“We are estimating within two years having an $800 milliondeficit, so that $1 billion from the federal government is alreadygone,” Currie said. “There’s not going to be a lot of ‘pick andchoose’ as to how the stimulus money’s going to be spent.”

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, said he supports thedecision to break for one month while stimulus spending guidelinesare reviewed, but he too feels the frustration of a 2009 sessionthat has largely been spent waiting.

“We’ve done some of the necessary housekeeping measures, but asfar as things important to me and the majority of my constituents,I don’t know what we’ve accomplished thus far,” he said.

Evans said he is most disappointed at the stalemate reached byHouse and Senate conferees over the cigarette tax increase, a taxhike he began supporting alongside other House Democrats last yearduring the Medicaid debates. He said the stalled-out cigarette taxnegotiations are emblematic of the 2009 session so far.

“We passed a cigarette tax the second week of the session, andhere it is April 1, and the tax has been basically languishing inthe Senate ever since,” Evans said. “Now, we’re at the end andeveryone starts flittering around and blaming everybody for notgetting it done.”

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, said she ismost disappointed at the failure of eminent domain legislation,which Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed last week. She also views the lastthree months as basically a waste of time, saying the Legislatureshould have adjourned immediately in January and not returned untillate February, which would have allowed stimulus spendinginstructions to arrive on time for the budgeting process.

“Then, we’d have the information we need from Congress toaccomplish what we need to in the session,” Hyde-Smith said. “Afterabout the third time you’ve worked up a $600 million budget (forthe Department of Mental Health), it gets pretty frustrating.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, is the odd man outamong local legislators, saying the extraordinary times of 2009call for extraordinary measures.

“It’s an unusual year,” he said. “We don’t know how we can usethe stimulus money to fill in some of those budget holes, and youcan’t expect to just go out and do all of those things. That’s whywe’re taking a break right now. You just have to take a methodicalapproach to the problem.”

Despite the widespread frustration among lawmakers over anincomplete job in Jackson, each local legislator was able to findbright spots in the work done so far.

Moak’s Municipal Historical Hamlet Act was signed into law bythe governor and will soon allow unincorporated communities, likehis own Bogue Chitto, to apply for small loans and grants forinfrastructure improvements.

“And we didn’t kill the arts school,” he added, referring to afailed February attempted to move the Mississippi School of theArts out of Brookhaven.

Hyde-Smith and Currie said they are pleased that some recurringbills were finally approved in 2009, most notably the sales taxholiday. In the same vein, Evans touted the Legislature’s work thusfar on dropout prevention and grade requirements, saying that”education is in fact a top priority in Mississippi.”