Shell Game

Unfortunately, the economy has performed dismally through the first half of FY 2009. After six months (through December, 2008), Mississippi’s general fund shortfall already is almost $77 million lower than the revenue estimate upon which the FY 2009 budget was based. Consequently, and as required of him by law, Governor Barbour in October announced cuts of 2% for most state agencies, but he exempted certain high priority areas, including the MAEP. Further broad agency cuts in the current fiscal year are inevitable as the budget situation worsens. By law, however, the governor cannot cut any agency more than 5% unless and until all other agencies are cut at least 5%, so if things get much worse, even the most precious priorities may no longer be sacrosanct.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed HB 290, which would raid the “Rainy Day Fund” to restore some $17.2 million in cuts to higher education and community colleges. Proponents of the bill argued that these “education” expenditures are of such high priority that the 2% October cuts (which the law required Governor Barbour to make) should be wiped out by immediately drawing on the “Rainy Day Fund, ” irrespective of the likely future needs for the monies held within that vital safety net.

Although reasonable minds certainly may differ on budget priorities, it is indisputable that when the Legislature voted last spring to appropriate 100% of anticipated FY ‘09 revenues, it did so only because the proposed budget also “fully funded” the “Rainy Day Fund” as a hedge against future bad budget years. In other words, had the “Rainy Day Fund” not been fully funded, the Legislature would have appropriated only 98% of the actual 2009 appropriations, so the 2% “cuts” imposed in October would have been absorbed in any event, one way or the other. Wednesday’s effort in the House to circumvent last spring’s budget agreement is therefore nothing more than a back-door attempt to “have your cake and eat it too” by appropriating 100% of revenues without first securing the “Rainy Day Fund,” thereby gutting the Fordice budgetary safeguards. HB 290, as passed Wednesday, is really just an elaborate shell game designed to disguise fiscal irresponsibility behind the transparent political cloak of giving “priority” to “education.”

The vote in the House Wednesday was 87 in favor, and 34 against, with 1 not voting. Frankly, the 34 votes would have been more had not everyone understood that the bill is totally meaningless, designed purely for political theatre, and having no chance of ultimate passage through the Senate or to have the governor’s concurrence. No House member seriously would argue that “education” is not a priority, but every House member present Wednesday fully understood that HB 290 was all about politics, and not about “education” at all. If it ever comes to it (and it won’t), there will be more than enough votes in the House to sustain a gubernatorial veto of HB 290.

During the past five years, House members regularly have been subjected to “political” votes on the budget in the early days of the session which ultimately bear no relationship at all to the actual budget adopted at the very end of the session. So it is with HB 290. This bill will die quietly, as it should, and as all such “political” bills inevitably do. Sooner or later, the House will cease the partisan gamesmanship and begin the real work of forging a reasonable solution to our daunting fiscal situation. As always, that solution cannot and will not be found without the agreement of the governor and of Democrats and Republicans in the House and in the Senate, all working together.

Forget HB 290. Check back in early April for the real budget story.

Rep. Greg Snowden
Clarion Ledger