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Bryant asking for more money to cover staff expenses

JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant is requesting an additional $355,531 to cover expenses for his staff through the end of the fiscal year after his predecessor, Haley Barbour, spent more than half of the yearly budget for the governor’s staff before departing.

Bryant is also seeking $119,000 to pay for workers at the Governor’s Mansion for 18 months, to replace the free labor previously provided by prisoners. The Republican canceled the mansion’s inmate trusty program soon after he took office Jan. 10. His action came amid an uproar over Barbour’s pardoning of inmate trusties, including convicted killers.

The total request is $474,531.

Bryant’s staff told The Associated Press yesterday that Barbour, also a Republican, spent more than half of the annual budget for the governor’s staff before he left office. The state fiscal year started last July 1, and Bryant’s staff said Barbour paid his own staffers for accumulated leave time and other expenses. The fiscal year ends June 30.

Bryant staffers did not say what percentage of the $3.8 million governor’s staff budget Barbour spent. The separate operating budget for the Governor’s Mansion is $549,863.

Former Barbour staffers declined to comment.

A bill proposes funding Bryant’s request from a state account created after Hurricane Katrina. During a 2005 special session, lawmakers authorized the state to borrow up to $500 million to help pay Katrina recovery expenses. The money could be used, for example, to pay the state’s portion of projects jointly funded by the federal and state governments.

Kevin Upchurch, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, said yesterday that although Katrina recovery continues, the state no longer needs a designated recovery fund. The balance in the fund is $785,244, he said.

“The purpose of the fund, it’s over and done with,” Upchurch said. “It’s time to close that out.”

While the Gulf Coast was hit hardest by Katrina, the money in the fund “doesn’t belong to any particular part of the state,” Upchurch said.

If lawmakers agree to give $474,531 to the governor’s office, they could decide how to spend the remaining $311,013, Bryant staffers said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said he thinks legislators will have to fulfill Bryant’s request but he expects a lively debate.

“I’d hate to see the governor’s office close down,” Frierson said.

Bryant and his wife, Deborah, have not yet moved into the Governor’s Mansion because it is undergoing renovations that are scheduled to be finished in April. Because of that, there has been no need for people to cook or clean since he decided to end the mansion trusty program. For years, a small number of inmates cooked, cleaned and did other jobs.

Bryant, a former deputy sheriff, canceled the mansion trusty program in the aftermath of Barbour’s hotly debated end-of-term pardons of four convicted killers and a convicted robber who worked as trusties during his second term. The attorney general’s office is challenging these and other pardons granted by Barbour on the grounds that proper public notice may not have been given.

During a recent presentation of its own budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1, DFA requested $250,000 for “four full-time housekeeper positions plus contract labor needed to prepare and clean up for events at the Mansion.” The Governor’s Mansion budget usually is separate from the DFA budget.

Upchurch said the $250,000 request is separate from the $119,000 request for mansion help.

Bryant has touted his plan to cut the governor’s budget by more than the 5.5 percent he has recommended for most state agencies in the coming year. Spokesman Mick Bullock said Bryant still plans to impose that cut, although it’s unclear if he will be cutting from a new, higher figure, once increased staff costs for the current year are factored in.

“Gov. Bryant fully intends on taking a 6.5 percent reduction in his budget for fiscal year 2013,” Bullock said in a statement.

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