Two months: Session has nothing to show on budget

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

When the 2010 session of the Mississippi Legislature was gaveled to order on Jan. 5, every lawmaker knew the state’s income for this budget year was running about 5 percent below expectations. That was a problem, but not insurmountable. All across the state, businesses small and large were dealing with declines in revenue as large or larger than the state’s.

The governor, as directed by statute, had already ordered one round of reductions in the amount state operating entities would receive from amounts they had been pledged.

Two months have passed. Monday, the Legislature enters the third month of its session, which is supposed to be the final month.

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Has anything been done to address the full scope of the shortfall?

In a word, no.

There have been two months of intense “back and forthing” on what to cut and how much. A major point of contention has been how much of the state’s reserves should be depleted. Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, offered a reasonable compromise. It failed.

Revenue is still not meeting projections. The state’s budget year ends June 30. So it’s a challenge, to say the least, for school districts and agency heads to operate still not knowing how much less to expect from state sources in the next four months.

In a “normal” session, the current year’s budget is a done deal when a legislative session begins. The fiscal matter drawing the greatest attention is how the state’s income will be distributed when the next budget year starts July 1.

The 2010 Legislature hasn’t even started talking in any serious way about the year to come, when income is expected to be even less.

As the new week begins, the hot topic is an unexpected $36 million in federal stimulus money that has shown up and, perhaps, can be used to patch holes in this year’s allocations where lawmakers and the governor have not been able to agree.

That would be a good thing.

After all, the clock’s ticking. It appears to be a lot easier to be a legislator when money is pouring in and there are plenty of treats to pass around. Periods of declining revenue aren’t as much fun. But there’s a job to be done, and legislators need to step up and do it.