No agreement on State Budget, Education Funding; More Cuts Possible Before End Of Fiscal Year

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi budget writers exchanged sharp words Friday but came no closer to deciding how much money they'll restore to schools, prisons and other government services.

State revenues are still looking dreary. Hours after the House and Senate ended their negotiations for the weekend, the state Tax Commission released preliminary figures showing tax collections were 12.4 percent below expectations in February - a shortage of $33 million for the month.

February marked the 18th consecutive month for Mississippi tax collections to miss their mark, and the 15th for revenues to fall below where they were for the same month in the previous year.

Gov. Haley Barbour said he might have to make more budget cuts before the fiscal year ends June 30.

"This month will be one of the worst - if not the worst - month for tax collections in this fiscal year," Barbour said in a statement Friday. "Clearly, our state's economy is still feeling the effects of this deep global recession."

Barbour has already cut $458.5 million from what started last July as a nearly $6 billion state budget. Lawmakers are dipping into the state's financial reserves and using some federal stimulus money to try to restore about $82 million, but they're haggling over details of how much money certain programs should receive.

Three negotiators from the House and three from the Senate argued briefly Friday at the Capitol.

House members said the Senate's latest demand of $16 million for the Department of Corrections is too high. Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said the House position of $10 million is too low and he asked House negotiators to increase their offer.

"I put my best deal up front," House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, snapped at Nunnelee. "To heck with all the games we play here."

"It's not an auction," added Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, shot Brown and Stringer a disgusted look.

"You're exactly right," Burton said. "It's not a game."

The two sides are close to an agreement on restoring several million dollars to elementary and secondary schools and universities. But while the House wants to give $3 million to community colleges, the Senate proposes no money for the two-year schools.

The House proposes giving $4 million to the Department of Mental Health, while the Senate proposes no money.

With budget restorations still uncertain, state agency executives are trying to figure out how they'll reduce their expenses for the next few months.

The Department of Human Services has reduced travel and cut back on purchasing supplies, spokeswoman Julia Bryan said Friday. Like most agencies, DHS has seen its budget cut by nearly 8.7 percent.

Under the latest proposals exchanged by House and Senate, DHS could receive a $3 million restoration - more than one-quarter of the money the agency has lost.

The state Personnel Board this month approved DHS' request for up to four days of furloughs for all human services employees before June 30, said Deanne Mosley, chief of staff for the board. Mosley also said the Personnel Board approved the elimination of two jobs in the state auditor's office.

Mosley said Friday that both agencies made the requests to save money because of budget cuts. She said just because DHS received approval for furloughs does not mean the agency will have them. The unpaid days off are a cost-cutting option in case part of the agency's budget is not restored.

Bryan said DHS has no immediate plans to furlough employees or reduce office hours, and is still deciding how to absorb budget reductions.

"There's just only so much we can plan to do until the Legislature makes a decision," Bryan said.

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