Lawmakers fret over gov. reject of budget deal

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Local lawmakers had mixed opinions Tuesday morning followingGov. Haley Barbour’s rejection of a fiscal year 2010 budgetproposal.

But one quality united the legislators: they are all powerlessto do anything about it.

Since the 2009 regular session ended and lawmakers are mostlyscattered around the state, all the governor has to do to opposethe proposed budget is refuse to call a special session. The moveforces budget negotiators – who are technically serving in anunofficial capacity since the session ended – to try again.

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“If the House and Senate had agreed to a budget … during theregular session, the governor wouldn’t even play into it,” saidDistrict 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto. “He would simply getthe opportunity to veto the legislation. (Now) he’s just using theconstitutional authority he has not to call the Legislature backinto special session to develop a budget.”

Barbour on Monday announced his intention not to call a specialsession to allow lawmakers to vote on an approximately $5 billionbudget, which was completed by House and Senate negotiators overthe weekend, because of provisions in the plan that would preventhim from cutting Medicaid in the future. He said in an e-mail thatthe provision “would give Medicaid a blank check and exposeMississippi taxpayers to the risk of a severe and illegal budgetdeficit.”

Moak, however, is more worried about deficits that will begin toappear in only eight days if the new fiscal year starts with nobudget in place. State agencies could find themselves unable tooperate, he said.

“If the governor does not call the Legislature back in session,no matter what may come from the executive branch … there will beno money,” Moak said. “If the Legislature doesn’t appropriate fundsand someone attempts to utilize those funds, I think you’d beputting yourself at a personal risk. There’s some real legal andconstitutional issues.”

Moak believes budget negotiators will refine their Medicaidproposal so that both chambers of the Legislature and the governoragree.

“If that doesn’t work, by the governor not calling a specialsession, he will then be in a position to answer for that,” hesaid.

District 91 Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, believes the governorwill blink and call a special session. He pointed out last year’slegislative near miss, when the governor threatened to cut millionsof dollars from Medicaid and was stopped at the last minute when an”accounting error” caused millions of dollars of federal money toflow in and shore up the program.

“As we know now, the governor was bluffing,” Evans said. “I’mhoping that’s what it is now. We’re getting to the point now whereinstead of just one huge program like Medicaid getting shut down,we’re talking about most services that come from state government.That’s a very dangerous position for the governor to take.”

Evans said he supports negotiators’ stipulation to protectMedicaid and hopes they stand firm.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, supports bothpositions.

“The governor is right and (negotiators) are right in a way,”she said. “The hospitals, if they’re going to pay the tax, wantsome protection from the department of Medicaid. Medicaid has beenunfair in the dispersal of their funds. Hospitals pay their UPL andDSH (payments), then Medicaid holds onto the money and holds themhostage.”

Currie said she also understood the governor’s position.

“If we don’t have the money, by law he has the right to makecuts,” she said. “What this bill is saying is whether we have themoney or not, the governor can’t make cuts. We’d just be spendingmoney we don’t have.”

Currie believes the impasse between Barbour and negotiators willbe worked out soon and a special session will be called. She saideducation funding and other budget items have already been agreedupon and Medicaid is the only roadblock remaining.