State can’t run and hide from budget realities

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 3, 2010

The 2010 lawmaking season opens Tuesday for the second straight year under the ominous cloud of declining state revenues.

As 2009 ended, Gov. Haley Barbour was again asking for new budget-cutting powers — not to address future expenses, but to make sure Mississippi can pay this year’s bills. As has been the case in the past, the Senate would likely comply, but the House, under the leadership of Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, would be hesitant. Throughout state history, lawmakers have been reluctant to give the power of the purse to any governor.

In dollars and cents, state revenue was short by 10.8 percent — $41.2 million — making December the 16th straight month Mississippi has not had enough money coming in to fund budget allocations as promised.

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The raw facts are that while other states may be in far worse shape, Mississippi’s spending is being propped up this year by federal stimulus dollars. Those dollars will also be available for the budget lawmakers are directed to craft during the next three months. But they won’t be in the following year, and that could put Mississippi in an unprecedented vise unless the private economy ignites with fervor.

Candid lawmakers will confess there’s not much elasticity in state obligations. Bond payments are not optional. Providing health care to those who qualify for Medicaid is not optional. Funding prisons is not optional. Keeping schools and colleges open is not optional.

Still, Barbour says, he’s entering the new year with optimism. As the national economic collapse started more than a year ago, the governor predicted it would take three or four years to recover. For this new year, he said his emphasis will be on recruiting employers. The plan is to have Mississippi in prime position for gains as the national economy revs back up.

There’s no reason to expect this will be a smooth, seamless process. Real hardships are ahead.

But Barbour is right. The state can’t run and hide. Forward is the only way to go.