Lawmakers discuss budget cuts for upcoming session

Published 6:00 am Monday, December 28, 2009

School districts don’t want to be consolidated, universitiesdon’t want to be merged and state agencies don’t want to be cut.So, how is Mississippi going to overcome its $800 million budgetshortfall?

By hurting some feelings.

“If you look at the size of government, it’s going to take somecuts,” said District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven. “We’regoing through some tough times, and we have to be prepared thatsome things are going to be cut.”

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With the Legislature set to convene in just nine days on Jan. 5,budget work is set to be the end-all, be-all of lawmakers’ workduring the 2010 session. Partisan arguments over the great issuesof yesteryear like voter ID and teacher pay raises have all butdisappeared as state officials scramble to dig up every extrapenny.

The only question remaining, it seems, is who will be cut, andby how much.

Gov. Haley Barbour in November grabbed the budget axe by itssplintery handle and raised it high, but everyone agrees themomentum of the coming swing will not penetrate through every itemon his chopping block. The governor spared no institutions, howeversacred, recommending everything from education cuts to massclosures of mental health facilities. Friends and foes alike agreeBarbour does not seriously expect all his suggestions to beembraced – his executive budget recommendations simply opened thefloor to discussion on all aspects of state government.

The message got across. Since Barbour’s recommendations, stateagencies have rushed to defend turf. The Black Caucus will notallow the state’s historically black colleges to be merged.Education officials have questioned the governor’s wisdom thatconsolidating school districts will actually save money. TheMississippi Department of Mental Health even asked for extramillions.

Something’s got to give.

“I think everybody is going to take an across the board hit,which is a fair thing,” Currie said. “There are going to be thingswe are probably not going to be able to do. I doubt we can fullyfund education this year, and quite frankly we just don’t have themoney.”

District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, favors a top-downapproach to cutting state spending. Theif-you-cut-us-the-world-will-end defense offered up by many stateagencies is a common response, he said, but a pecking order forpriority state functions must be established.

“You’ve got to take care of health care, you’ve got to take careof law enforcement and education,” Moak said. “After that, we startlooking at everything else. You’re going to have to uncover somemoney if you’re not going to be able to prioritize.”

Moak pointed out that House and Senate committees crunchingnumbers during the break this year have already used attrition tosave money, freezing state hiring and removing PIN numbers forfuture state employment. Further funds can be saved by cutting outthe perks that are “politically popular” – travel, cell phones andstate vehicles. Cutting state jobs should be the last course ofaction considered, he said.

Moak and Currie find common ground in their opposition to newtaxes to fill the budget hole. Currie said she would not vote forany measure containing a tax increase, and Moak called raisingtaxes “one of the biggest mistakes” the Legislature could make.

“You may make up for some of those losses the state has, butwhat are you going to do to those folks?” he said. “That’s not theway to cure this problem.”

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, D-Brookhaven, doesn’t want tosee taxes increased either, but she said the Jackson rumor mill istalking about that very remedy. She believes the possibility ofraising taxes will be discussed more seriously than ever during the2010 session, adding there are “a million things” that could betaxed.

Raising taxes isn’t the only drastic measure being talked aboutin lawmaking circles, Hyde-Smith said.

“I think the lottery will be more seriously discussed than itever has been,” she said. “I think there may even be days thatstate employees do not come to work on a furlough rather than havetheir jobs cut. Most state employees I’ve talked to would ratherhave a little less of their salary than to lose their jobs.”