Mississippi Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood says he has assurances that a Joint Legislative Budget Committee proposal to cut 18 percent from the tiny watchdog agency’s 2013 budget won’t be carried out.
Hood attributed the proposed cut to the timing of the Budget Committee’s work. The committee directed state departments and agencies to provide it a list of vacant positions by July. The committee intended to order a freeze on filling all jobs that had been vacant for at least six months and to set budget proposals to reflect the eliminated positions.
The seven-employee Ethics Commission had a single vacancy – the assistant director post – at the time. “We filled the position in August,” Hood said.
The proposal for the 18 percent cut equaled the salary, fringe benefits and everything that goes with the assistant director position, a post typically filled by an attorney, Hood said.
Hood, the younger brother of Attorney General Jim Hood, has headed the Ethics Commission since January 2006. He started as assistant director in 2003.
He acknowledged an 18 percent cut, which comes to nearly $120,000, would be “devastating” for the agency’s annual budget of about $650,000. But “I don’t think” the cut will be part of the state’s final budget, Hood said.
Lawmakers have traditionally been supportive of the Ethics Commission, providing both political and financial support, he added. “They know we don’t go over there asking for stuff we don’t need.”
The agency submitted a budget request that sought an additional $3,500 to cover increased expenses such as phones and rent, according to Hood.
Four years ago state lawmakers added compliance with the state’s open meetings and open records laws to the agency’s original job of investigating complaints of ethics violations by government officials, including conflicts of interest violations.
The new responsibilities were not accompanied by budget increases, according to Hood.
Ethics Commission Chairman Ben Stone said he thinks state budget policymakers understand a mistake has been made and will back off making the 18 percent cut. “I think they misunderstood one of our positions that was unfilled when they looked at it,” said Stone, a Gulfport lawyer and longtime member of the commission who noted in past years “the Legislature has always been very good to the Ethics Commission.”