- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi lawmakers pushed through dozens of bills to write the state’s $6 billion budget before a midnight Monday deadline.

But House members rejected a pair of transportation spending bills, saying they were upset about special projects inserted by Senate members.

The rejected bills could mean that Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will have to call a quick special session. Members could also override legislative rules to consider budgets later, or push back the official closing date of the session even if they don’t meet for any more days.

Most measures passed Monday with little debate, as rewritten bills emerged from House-Senate negotiations with little time for rank-and-file lawmakers to review them. All bills passed by both houses go to Bryant for his consideration.

Figures provided by the state Senate showed lawmakers plan to spend $6.04 billion in the budget year that begins July 1, up $215 million, or 3.7 percent, more than the budget they passed for the current year. Lawmakers are also adding about $100 million to the current year’s budget, to cover deficits in the state prison system, its Medicaid health insurance program and other programs.

House leaders objected to special projects worth about $40 million that senators directed the state Department of Transportation to develop. They include $11.2 million to upgrade a bridge on Mississippi 14 in Rolling Fork; $10 million to expand Lakeland Drive in Rankin County; and $10 million for work on the U.S. 82 bypass around Greenville.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez, told House members that the list of projects was unfair, and the House sent the bill back for more talks. But the bill came back late Monday, and Johnson urged House members to reject it, with support from House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville.

“After two years, I think it’s time to send a message,” Johnson said, with House members cheering as the ‘no’ votes piled up.

Republican Lt. Gov Tate Reeves said he didn’t understand why House members rejected the language after agreeing to multiple conference reports. He defended the Senate’s push to mandate spending on Lakeland Drive, the suburban spine that runs through the area where Reeves lives.

“I make no apology for fighting to prioritize transportation projects in our state,” Reeves said.

Debate also flared over the state’s K-12 budgets, with some lawmakers protesting not enough money was put into the state’s K-12 funding formula.

Republican leaders put the legal limit of $410 million into the rainy day fund, the state’s largest savings account. Frierson said that was a benefit to the state, because it allowed lawmakers to waive a requirement that the state set aside 2 percent of general revenue to cover potential shortfalls. That freed up money to spend in 2015, he said, and means the state budget is in “structural balance,” without using temporary money to plug holes.

“I think it’s significant,” Frierson said. “I think we ought to be outside shooting fireworks.”

Democrats, though, said they would have preferred to spend more on raises for employees or the state’s K-12 funding formula. The budget adds only $10 million to the funding formula, leaving it $255 million short of what the formula legally requires.

“The priorities of this budget are not healing the sick and the priorities of this budget are not educating the poor,” Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said in opposing the education budget. Earlier in the session, Bryan had successfully amended the Senate budget to add $60 million to the funding formula.


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