House action expected Wednesday on state budget

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Gov. Phil Bryant

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Gov. Phil Bryant

The Mississippi House is expected to take action Wednesday on a bill that will allow Gov. Phil Bryant to pull additional reserve funds to balance this year’s budget, which ends at midnight Thursday.

The bill, which passed the Senate 33-14 on Tuesday, got hung up on procedural matters in the House of Representatives. It amends a current law that caps the governor’s authority to transfer no more than $50 million from the state’s so-called rainy day fund each fiscal year.

Questions from the Senate floor showed that it is still unclear exactly how much Bryant will need to pull from the fund because tax revenue continues to roll in through the end of the month.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, and vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday the total needed from the fund could be anywhere between $10 million and $100 million.

Sen. Briggs Hopson

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg

“We’re going to be some millions of dollars short on the budget,” Hopson said. “If we don’t pass something, our agencies and departments in this state will be cut. This money will allow agencies to not be cut… This is what the Rainy Day Fund is here for.”

The House Appropriations Committee passed the bill after a short meeting Tuesday afternoon. However, a two-thirds vote was needed to suspend the House rules and allow the bill to be taken up immediately. When that vote failed, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, accepted a motion to adjourn the House until 9 a.m. Wednesday, when it is expected to take a vote on the bill.

The bill also had a procedural hiccup in the Senate when Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, refused to give consent to send the bill immediately to the House. Unanimous consent of all senators is generally needed to release bills immediately for consideration by the House.

After Bryan’s objection, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate leaders huddled to determine if there was another avenue to move the bill quickly to the House. After a short time, the Senate came back in session and the motion to send the bill immediately to the House was withdrawn. Instead, the Senate voted to adjourn, ending the session, which allowed the bill to go to the House immediately.

Because the governor has already taken $45.2 million from the fund this year and estimates show that up to $100 million more may be needed to balance this year’s budget, Bryant called the Legislature into special session and asked it to remove the $50 million cap.

Senators on Tuesday – both on the chamber floor and an Appropriations Committee meeting – inquired about the state’s financial situation for the current fiscal year and debated whether the governor should have the power to pull an unlimited about from the state’s rainy day fund, which currently holds $364 million.

Mississippi is struggling to balance its budget due in part to lower-than-expected revenue collected this year. Bryant already has cut many state agency budgets two different times this fiscal year to help offset revenue shortfalls. He also twice dipped into the Rainy Day Fund for a total of $45.2 million. That leaves him with less than $5 million available from that fund unless the Legislature approves lifting the $50 million per fiscal year restriction.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville

Speaking on final passage of the bill, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who ultimately voted against the bill, urged his colleagues to consider big-picture implications of the state’s financial situation and today’s vote.

“The real question we have to ask is how have we hurt ourselves? What would we do without this Rainy Day Fund?” McDaniel said. “It’s not that we don’t have the money. We lack the priorities … I think we’re heading down a wrong path. We need to act with some degree of discretion if we want to save our budget.”

Several Democratic senators pressed Hopson on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, asking about how much money the state has and how much the governor might need to pull from the Rainy Day Fund.

Bryan suggested someone from the governor’s office come to the Capitol and explain what steps the governor took to avoid pulling from the Rainy Day Fund for the third time this year and why such little notice was given to lawmakers about the special session.

“It strikes me that we were in session in April, and there was no discussion of this,” Bryan said. “What took place between the time we went home in April right after we had just passed the biggest tax cut in the state, and now in June, we’re back here. What took place in that time that was so unanticipated?”

Hopson urged senators to vote against an amendment from Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds County, to cap the governor’s access to the fund at $100 million. He citied the governor’s ability to call the Legislature back into session if he needed more. The amendment died on a voice vote.

The bill will be filed through the House Appropriations Committee, and if approved there, it will move to the House floor for a final vote. After that, it will move to the governor’s desk for signature, which will give him additional transfer authority before the Thursday midnight deadline for the current fiscal year budget.