Budget Deadline Not Met

Legislators missed their budget deadline Saturday night after a dispute over education funding erupted into a war of words between House and Senate chairmen. Negotiators will be back at work Sunday, trying to find about $161 million to pay for public schools.

The total state budget is $3.7 billion.

Senate Education Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said he was "appalled" to learn school districts across the state are holding about $349 million in rainy day funds. He said legislators should tap some of that money.

"This is a rainy day in Mississippi,'' Chaney said. ``It's not just raining. It's actually flooding.'' Chaney spoke to reporters and dozens of lobbyists, state agency directors and others during a news conference on the Senate end of the Capitol.

After Chaney finished, the crowd migrated to the House end of the building, where House Education Chairman Randy "Bubba" Pierce, D-Leakesville, held his own news conference to respond.

"Public education has been attacked this session, and I'm sick of it," Pierce said with some anger in his voice.

He said the state can't use the rainy day funds because local districts already have committed that money for things like roof repairs and classroom construction. Pierce said the funds include state and local dollars, and the state has no authority to take local money.

Chaney estimated $35 million of the rainy day money could be used to shore up the state education budget. He said he asked the state Department of Education for information about the rainy day funds two weeks ago and received it late Saturday afternoon.

With budget talks stalled, lawmakers are looking at extending the session beyond next weekend's scheduled ending.

"All of this could have been avoided if the Senate had started working earlier," said Maryann Graczyk, president of the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers.

Lawmakers said they were trying to balance the budget without slashing services or firing state workers. But House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, warned that up to 4,000 employees could lose their jobs. That's about 12 percent of the state work force, not counting teachers. He said cuts could be made to most agencies.

Because lawmakers couldn't agree on budgets, they filed "dummy" bills--outlines without final spending figures. Dummy bills let legislators meet the deadline and give negotiators more time to work over the next few days. After the final bills are filed, they'll go to the full House and Senate. Both chambers must pass final versions of the budget bills by Tuesday.

The session is set to adjourn May 9, and budgets cannot be passed within five days of the session's ending. If legislators reach Tuesday without resolving details of the spending plan, they can extend the session for 30 days.

Senate President Pro Tempore Travis Little, R-Corinth, said lawmakers hope to avoid extending the session that started in early January, but he said it was difficult to find enough money to cover a long list of demands.

"There's a bigger gap this year than it's ever been because of the one-time money we've used in the past," Little said Saturday.

"One-time money" is pulled from state agencies that often keep millions of dollars in reserve to pay bills. An example is gasoline-tax money taken last year from the Department of Transportation to cover needs in other programs.

Early this session, the House passed a bill to raise some fees that haven't been changed for years, including adding an extra $5 to personalized car tags.

The Senate and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour have balked at that plan. A House-backed education plan was designed to fund public schools at the same level as this year, plus pay for mandated teacher pay raises.

Education officials said a plan passed earlier by the Senate and backed by Barbour would leave K-12 schools $161 million short--enough to prompt layoffs of about 2,000 teachers.

Barbour and Senate leaders said they wanted to put millions more dollars into education, but it was unclear whether a final spending plan would be as large as the House proposal.

Barbour's deputy chief of staff, John Arledge, said the governor was "floored" to learn about school districts' rainy day funds, especially since some districts have been telling teachers their contracts won't be renewed.

At issue in Medicaid, was whether to remove about 65,000 disabled and low-income elderly people from the program, which is funded by state and federal dollars. Barbour has said most would immediately become eligible for Medicare, paid entirely by federal money. Health advocates say about 6,000 of those who might be dropped from Medicaid would be left with no health insurance.

"There's nothing fair about cuts to our most vulnerable citizens," said K.C. Grist of the nonprofit Mississippi Health Advocacy Program.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)