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Lawmakers turn attention to sticky budget year

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers are pushing forward with early proposals for the budget year that begins July 1, and many agencies are likely to receive less money than they’re requesting.

The $5.5-billion spending plan will be about 1 percent bigger than it is now, with most of the increase going toward state employees’ retirement.

Education could receive slightly more money, with about $8 million penciled in for a limited program for pre-kindergarten. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves also wants to spend about $7.5 million to help schools hire armed police officers — a proposal he made in response to the fatal shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Reeves said most agencies are likely to receive about the same amount of money as they’re receiving this year. Still, many had requested increases, so agency directors won’t be able to do everything they want.

“What you find is a very conservative budget,” Reeves told reporters yesterday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said House leaders identified $280 million worth of “critical needs,” but only $74 million of those would be covered under early budget proposals. For example, the Division of Medicaid says it needs nearly $124.7 million to cover program growth and increased medical costs, but the House proposal includes only an additional $32 million for the program.

Frierson told the House that lawmakers need to avoid expanding programs or cutting taxes. The House voted recently for a $5,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, but that is unlikely to be approved by the Senate or to appear in the final version of the budget.

“We can’t get out of this hole, y’all, if we keep digging,” Frierson said yesterday.

Fifty-four budget bills start in the House, and 54 start in the Senate. Each chamber passes its own, then they exchange bills for more work.

Lawmakers have an early April deadline to finish the fiscal 2014 budget.

They’ve been trying to move away from paying for ongoing expenses by using “one-time money,” or funds that are available only a single year at a time, such as payments from lawsuit settlements.

For fiscal 2013, which began last July 1, the state used $420 million in one-time money. For fiscal 2014, the House proposes using $226 million. That’s a decrease, but it’s still a bigger chunk than legislative leaders originally said they wanted to use. Top members of the House and Senate released a budget blueprint in December that had about $125 million of one-time money.

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