Confusion reigns as voting begins in Legislature

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Mississippi lawmakers Sunday were expressing concern at the lack of information they were being given before voting on appropriations for next fiscal year – with some agencies facing cuts of 14 percent.

Monday is the deadline for action on spending bills. A gloomy revenue projection for next year was released Friday, sending legislators scrambling to cut already lean budgets in many state agencies and departments.

On Saturday, both houses passed a bill that pulls assessments from special fund agencies

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, discusses spending bills on the Senate floor Sunday.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, discusses spending bills on the Senate floor Sunday.

into the general fund and prevents state agencies from charging fees to other state agencies. The bill was seen as one way to help hold off more serious budget cuts for agencies operating off the general fund.

Individual appropriations to state agencies were being dealt with in closed-door conference committee meetings, leaving the public and the majority of lawmakers out of the loop. Pairing that with talk of substantial budget cuts that some lawmakers hinted could lead to layoffs, lawmakers voiced their concerns about the situation on the floor of both chambers Sunday.

“I have no clue what’s going on with the budget besides it being clear that we don’t have much money,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “It’s after 3 p.m. on Sunday, we have a deadline coming up, and no one knows what’s going on.

“Agency heads are nervous,” Bryan continued. “There are a lot of changes going on in this budget and it’s probably not comparable to others because special funds are being changed. That makes this budget particularly hard to understand.”

Small groups of conferees – three from each chamber – meet on the individual appropriation bills. Those meetings are closed to the public and the media. When conferees agree on appropriation amounts, the committee report is brought to the floor to be voted up or down by both houses. Committee chairmen can choose to discuss the appropriations on the floor and can accept questions from the entire legislative body.

On Sunday, several lawmakers in both houses from both political parties complained about the lack of information they were given before being asked to vote on the bills. It wasn’t until Sunday around 4:15 p.m. that the Senate was given a spreadsheet with projected budget changes by state agency. Members of the House of Representatives were never given a breakdown of budget changes.

“It’s complicated when you look at these agencies and what they’re being reduced, but it’s clear that some of that reduction are charges they no longer have to pay (under the bill passed Saturday),” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson. “What is the actual effect on an agency’s budget? What are the percentages? That’s what we need to be able to look at to see if we agree with those priorities or not.”

Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, said on the floor the numbers in the spreadsheet given to senators were accurate, leading senators to believe the numbers were cut and dry. Mississippi Today obtained a copy of the Senate spreadsheet, and numbers given on the House floor by committee members directly contradicted the numbers on the spreadsheet.

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, a member of the public health and human services committee, said the Department of Health’s budget would be cut 13.6 percent. But the Senate spreadsheet distributed by Clarke reflects just a 0.4 percent cut.

Seven different senior lawmakers told Mississippi Today they had never been exposed to such a lack of information about a proposed budget.

Bryan, who often speaks on the floor about legislative procedure, questioned the lack of information given to senators and why the process was rushed. Clarke said he generally agreed with the concerns Bryan raised.

“As far as rules go, the pro-tems might need to get together to revise the time allowed in the appropriations process,” Clarke said.  “You’re compressed to making a budget of $6 billion in 36 hours. Then there’s things like talking to leadership, talking to subcommittee chairmen. Just the way the process works is time consuming, and we might ought to look at a different way to do this in the future.”

At least three different lawmakers hinted that budget cuts would be so extreme in some departments, including the Department of Health, that layoffs were possible. Reps. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, Omaria Scott, D-Laurel, and Steve Holland, D-Tupelo, all suggested breaking into the state’s $375 million “rainy day fund” to help offset some of the proposed cuts.

Despite the confusion, lawmakers continued to meet into the evening on Sunday and vote on spending bills.

“I’d like to study the process a little more,” Clarke said. “We shouldn’t be harried by deadlines when making critical decisions like this. We should have deadlines. I’d like to work toward a more streamlined process that the general public can see.”