House passes bill to balance state budget

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Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant

The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would allow the governor to pull more money from a reserve fund to balance the budget before the end of the fiscal year on Thursday.

The 72-38 vote sends the bill to Gov. Phil Bryant for his signature a day before the state’s fiscal year ends. In a statement following the vote, Bryant said: “It’s regrettable that the grandstanding of the House Democrats cost taxpayers an additional $30,000. I am grateful to the leadership of the Senate and the House for doing their job and allowing me to do mine — balance the state budget.”

Bryant’s remark was in reference to the fact that Republican lawmakers had hoped to pass the bill in both houses on Tuesday, but House Democrats refused to suspend normal rules and consider the bill that day. Bryant called lawmakers to Jackson this week for a special session to consider the bill, which was passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

“If we collect $60 million today and tomorrow, all of this is for naught,” said Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “This is just an insurance policy to make sure we can write those checks between now and July 1.”

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel

The House went into recess about a half hour after beginning debate for House legal counsel to consider a point of order raised by Reps. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, and Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, that the bill had been improperly brought to the House for consideration. Scott said the bill violated a House appropriations rule and the Mississippi Constitution. That point of order was rejected by the House counsel, which said the bill was not an appropriations bill.

When Scott attempted later in the morning to file another point of order, Gunn denied that request, claiming he asked for points of order earlier in the morning.

“If we know the governor needs no more than $60 million, why are we writing him a blank check?” Scott asked Frierson. “This body should not allow for a back-door play for this person to have unlimited access to the (Rainy Day Fund).”

House Democrats proposed eight amendments – all of which were tabled by Republicans and failed – to the bill Wednesday morning. Baria proposed a cap of the governor’s transfer authority at $100 million. Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, wanted to transfer $3 million to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Ridgeland, offered four amendments that would provide funding to state mental health facilities.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, offered an amendment to give $10 million to the state Board of Health. In his emotional plea not to table the amendment, Holland indicated that he planned to file retirement papers Thursday at 5 p.m. Holland has served in the House for 33 years.

Frierson said the amendments were tabled because the bill did not appropriate any funds, so that accepting the amendments still would not have provided funds to the agencies.

Frierson also urged state agency heads to work with the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees to address budget shortcomings rather than appealing to Attorney General Jim Hood for opinions on the legalities of budget cuts.

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.

Wednesday’s special session work is costing taxpayers $33,228 on top of the $68,720 total that was spent for Tuesday’s session. Republican leaders criticized Democratic House members Tuesday evening and accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money for voting to delay the session another day. Democrats defended their action, claiming the Republicans forced the special session in the first place.

“We won’t gain anything, just bring more media attention to what’s going on,” said Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs. “All we’re trying to do is inform Mississippians as to what’s happening here in Jackson. … Our senators across the aisle will say we’re wasting taxpayers’ dollars. Well we’re wasting taxpayers’ dollars to be here to start with. So let’s take care of this back in the regular session and we wouldn’t be here.”

House Democrats can further delay the process Wednesday if they choose. Normal legislative procedure rules are in play, meaning any lawmakers can propose amendments, requests points of order or personal privilege, and hold a bill on a motion to reconsider.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said Wednesday morning on the floor that they would offer amendments.

If the House votes to pass the bill Wednesday without amendment, it will move to the governor’s desk for signature. Bryant, who also criticized the extra special session day, has until midnight Thursday to move funds from the Rainy Day Fund to the General Fund, if necessary.