Senate Leader On Budget: 'Clock's Ticking And It'll Get Louder'

Most work at the Capitol was done behind closed doors Thursday as budget analysts huddled with top lawmakers to try to scrounge enough money to fund state government without making deep cuts.

Senate President Pro Tempore Travis Little, R-Corinth, said officials were trying to create "a pool of money'' by dipping into some state agencies' cash reserves to pay for other programs.

It's a money-stretching technique that lawmakers have used the past couple of years to fund state government without increasing taxes in tight economic times.

Last year, for example, they took millions of dollars from the Department of Transportation and gave it to other agencies.

The practice has prompted criticism of lawmakers for using money that's only available one year at a time to pay for ongoing expenses.

The House and Senate face a Sunday night deadline to agree on a $3.7 billion state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Disagreements over funding levels for education and Medicaid remained the largest sticking points Thursday.

"The clock's ticking, and it'll get louder in the next day or two,'' Little said.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said negotiators were making some progress, but he didn't offer specifics.

"Let us all pray earnestly that we will reach a very meaningful conclusion to all of these bills,'' McCoy told the House late in the afternoon.

Legislators missed their original budget deadlines early in the week, and voted on Wednesday to extend the session and give themselves until Sunday to finish the budget.

Budget writers have warned that some state employees could lose their jobs, but it's not clear how many.

House and Senate negotiators were still far apart Thursday on whether to remove 65,000 disabled and low-income elderly people from Medicaid, a state-federal health insurance program.

Gov. Haley Barbour and Senate leaders say most of the people immediately would become eligible for Medicare, which is funded entirely by the federal government. But House negotiators and health advocates say about 6,000 of the people would lose coverage.

Dr. Warren Jones, the Medicaid executive director, would not predict the outcome of negotiations.

"We're confident that the Legislature is going to do the right thing for the greater good,'' Jones said.

Steve Coker, superintendent of Houston public schools in north Mississippi, was among the school administrators who went to the Capitol earlier this week to lobby for education funding. He said the uncertainty over the state budget makes life difficult for him, his school board members and the district's teacher staff.

"I don't know how to plan,'' Coker said this week. "I have a school board, I have an advisory committee and I have people in my office who are laying awake at night looking at the ceiling trying to figure out how this is going to be resolved. Now folks, this has gone on too long.''

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