Budget plan still up in air

House and Senate lawmakers who met Thursday evening to hammer out a budget plan talked in quiet voices while scrolling lines of numbers.

Occasionally, they looked at one another with raised eyebrows. There was some laughter, but mostly heavy silence. They broke for the evening without an agreement, but vowed to return to the negotiation table at 8:30 a.m. today.

“We’re a long way apart,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

Funding for the Mississippi Department of Corrections remains a sticking point. House leaders agreed to restore $10 million in cuts, but Senate negotiators insist on $16 million. Brown said there’s no way he’s going that high. The full House, he said, may well balk at $10 million.

“It doesn’t take courage to spend someone else’s money,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, the only Republican who spoke on the bill.

Nunnelee said a “no” vote amounted to standing up for the regular folks, small business owners and farmers who pay taxes.

A spectator of Thursday’s floor debate could have walked away assuming the opposing camps are fields apart on money priorities. With the exception of corrections, that’s not the case. And even there, House and Senate negotiators now are about $6 million apart, much closer than when the debate started.

In actuality, there is broad consensus that something needs to be done to offset a portion of the $458.5 million Barbour has cut thus far from a budget that started around $6 billion. Barbour concedes that point, too. The law required he cut all agencies evenly beyond 5 percent.

Clarion-Ledger
2/26/10