JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Haley Barbour would have authority to slash any agency’s budget he chooses up to 10 percent under a bill passed Wednesday in the Mississippi Senate.
Current state law says the governor can’t reduce any agency’s money by more than 5 percent until every agency has been cut by that percentage. Barbour has said the state’s declining revenue forces him to make deeper cuts, but he needs the 5 percent restriction lifted.
Supporters said the legislation will allow the governor to spare some agencies and programs from deep cuts, including corrections and those under court order, while targeting others for reductions beyond 5 percent.
Opponents said the bill infringes on the Legislature’s constitutional authority to write the state budget. They also said options other than agency reductions should be considered to balance the budget, including dipping into reserves.
“We’re completely turning over the spending authority to the governor. He’ll cut the agencies to the point they’ll have to lay off workers,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory.
The bill passed 29-19 after about three hours of debate. The bill gives Barbour the additional authority only through the end of the legislative session. It now heads to the House, where a similar bill has been filed, but not yet voted on.
House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he would meet with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee and Senate leadership to discuss the bill.
The House version exempts some programs from cuts, including pay supplements for top teachers, payments for long-term debt and funding for some lawsuit settlements, including one that puts millions into the historically black universities.
While the Senate bill doesn’t specifically name those items, Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he doesn’t think the governor would make significant reductions to those programs. The Mississippi Department of Corrections is another agency that likely wouldn’t be cut up to 5 percent, Nunnelee said.
However, Nunnelee said the governor didn’t have a list of the agencies that would be targeted.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said.
Nunnelee said the reductions should be done quickly to avoid balancing the state budget in the last months of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Mississippi’s revenue collections are expected to be about $400 million below estimates by year’s end, Nunnelee said. Barbour already has shaved some $226 million from the state’s $5 billion budget.
Bryan said many agencies are now bare-bone operations. Bryan, who voted against the bill, said he’s heard from district attorneys who say they cannot afford to pay prosecutors mileage to travel to courthouses.
Bryan said legislators should consider transferring money from the state’s rainy day fund or the health care trust fund, which receives the state’s payments from a 1990s tobacco settlement.
The rainy day fund has about $250 million and the trust fund has $220 million, legislators said.
“If this ain’t a rainy day, I don’t know what is,” Bryan said. “We’re going to come out of this slump. What we need to do now is come up with additional money so that we don’t need to make further cuts.”
The House and Senate were expected to adjourn early Thursday for the weekend.