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by Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – In the coming days, House and Senate appropriations leaders will begin formal negotiations to reach an accord on a $5.6 billion general fund budget to run state government.

The 2013 session is scheduled to end April 7, meaning the Legislature faces an April 1 deadline to meet the state constitutional mandate to pass all budget bills prior to the final five days of a legislative session.

Last week, both chambers passed bills that staked out their respective budget positions as the Legislature enters the conference or negotiations process.

There are differences between the two chambers, but in reality they are not that far apart.

The Senate budget is $5.61 billion, or $58.5 million above what the Legislature passed in 2012. The House proposal is $5.59 billion.

The Senate proposal is expected to provide $36.1 million, or 1.6 percent more for kindergarten through 12th grade education than was passed by the 2012 Legislature. The House plan provides an additional $28 million.

Last week, efforts by members to provide additional funds for education and mental health were defeated. The Republican leadership said funds were not available for the increases.

But some members of the leadership said additional funds might be found before the end of the process if the state revenue estimate is increased for the upcoming fiscal year.

The governor and the 14-member Legislative Budget Committee, which includes the speaker and lieutenant governor, meet in the fall to establish a revenue estimate for the next fiscal year. The revenue estimate is key because it represents the amount of money available for the Legislature to appropriate in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

It is not uncommon for the Legislative Budget Committee to meet late in the session to change the estimate before the House-Senate negotiations, where final decisions on the budget are normally hammered out.

It will be up to House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, who is chair of the Budget Committee this year, to decide whether to ask the state’s financial experts to look at the revenue picture and whether to call a meeting of the Legislative Budget Committee to consider revising the estimate.

“I think that is an option that is open and obviously something he is looking into,” said Nathan Wells, Gunn’s chief of staff. “It is a definite possibility.”

If the estimate is changed it probably would be revised upward.

Through February, collections are $132.1 million above the estimate made in April 2012 to construct the budget for the current year. Collections for the current year include $35.2 million from the settlement of lawsuits by Attorney General Jim Hood not factored into the estimate.

Still, without those funds, collections are nearly $100 million above the estimate.

When asked about increasing the estimate in the coming weeks, Senate Appropriations Chair Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, a member of the Budget Committee, said, “It is an option. I am hoping that revenues continue to improve.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who serves every other year as chair of the Budget Committee, would not speculate on whether the estimate should be increased. He said that decision rests with Gunn this year.

Through February, individual income tax collections are $88.6 million above the estimate. Sales tax receipts, viewed by many as the most accurate measure of economic progress, were $12.8 million above the estimate. Most other areas of tax collections are moderately above the estimate with the exception of corporate income tax collections ($13.8 million below the estimate) and casino gambling ($9 million below the estimate.)

Year-to-date collections are 3.8 percent, or $105.8 million above the previous year.

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