Miss. lawmakers to focus on balancing budget

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Before the 2010 Mississippi Legislature’s Tuesday kickoff, a key lawmaker was already predicting the outcome: job losses, fee increases and reduced state services.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said there will be no way to avoid reductions since the state’s revenue collections remain below expectations.

“It’s no doubt there’s going to be some cuts. We’re just hoping it’s not going to be as severe as some people are saying,” Stringer said.

The three-month session is scheduled to run through April 3. During that time, members of the House and Senate will wrangle over a $6 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said funding education and job creation programs would be the priorities for his chamber, but he didn’t elaborate on specific programs.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has shaved more than $226 million from state agencies so far in the current budget year, citing a sluggish economy with 16 months of tax collections coming in millions of dollars below estimates. Barbour has said he anticipates reducing the budget by another $160 million before the fiscal year ends June 30.

Barbour and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee have made recommendations on how to cut costs, and legislators will consider those plans as they write a budget.

Some 3,650 vacant government positions won’t be filled under the legislative plan, which also calls for reducing most state agencies’ budgets by about 10 percent. Stringer said legislators also are eyeing fee increases on car titles, agricultural licenses and other items.

He said Mississippi residents also will feel the budget cuts when tuition increases at universities, some college courses are eliminated and local tax hikes are sought to help pay for public school operations.

“When state funds are reduced, they have to turn to ad valorem taxes,” Stringer said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he’s willing to consider some fees, but streamlining agencies would be a priority.

“You can’t balance a budget on $10 fees and $12 fees,” Nunnelee said Monday. Nunnelee said there’s room to cut in all state agencies.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, said he will push lawmakers to approve a proposal for performance-based budgeting, which would tie funding to how well agencies meet goals.

“The state has no other option but to prepare for these tough economic times, which means we must change how we operate state government,” Bryant said in an e-mailed statement Monday. “We cannot simply rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”

Barbour has proposed consolidating Mississippi’s 152 school districts into 100. He also wants to merge the state’s eight universities into five. The governor has said the moves would trim about $35 million in spending.

Barbour’s proposal to lift some state Personnel Board rules for two years, starting July 1 has drawn criticism from a union leader. Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, will lobby lawmakers to reject the proposal.

Scott said she’s worried about job security for state workers.

She said the state’s current law provides job protection with a process that includes appeals for state employees who are terminated.

“How many jobs are we going to let go and jeopardize state services?” Scott said.