By Bobby Harrison
The Mississippi Legislature has nearly $250 million more to spend than when House and Senate members passed their respective budget proposals earlier this session.
Yet, most of the rank-and-file members of the House and Senate will have limited ability in saying how those funds are spent.
On the opening days of the current four-year term in January 2012, the rank-and-file members gave away that say to House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, and a few key appropriators.
This week provides a glimpse into the impact of members of the House and Senate giving up their opportunity to have a real impact on the state budgeting process
On Tuesday, the Legislative Budget Committee, which includes Gunn, Reeves and 12 other key legislators, voted to raise the revenue estimate for the current fiscal year and for the next, beginning July 1, by a hefty $247 million. Legislative leaders did not just raise the estimate in a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to make the process of budgeting easier in the final days. The estimate was raised based on sound advice from the state’s financial experts, including the state economist, tax commissioner, treasurer and others, who told legislative leaders that the money should be collected in taxes by the state.
That money will be available to spend during the final days of the session when House and Senate leaders meet, most often behind close doors, to develop a final budget agreement.
But that money was not available earlier this year when the two chambers voted in open session on their budget proposals.
It should be pointed out that early in each session each chamber develops a budget proposal, based on the majority votes of its members in open session.
At that time, an individual member – the newest freshman or the most grizzled veteran of any party – can offer an amendment to increase or decrease funding of any agency.
But when the new four-year term began in 2012, the members, at the behest of their leadership, severely limited their ability to have influence in the budgeting process. The members, by majority vote with all Republican members following the lead of Reeves and Gunn, adopted a rule stating that, if anyone offers an amendment to increase funding for one agency, the money has to be taken from another agency.
The money could not be taken from the more than $500 million the state has in reserves. The money could not be taken from the anticipated new revenue from the raising of the revenue estimate even though everyone knew when the two chambers passed their respective budget proposals that the state was collecting more in taxes than originally projected and the estimate would be increased.
Now, with new revenue in hand, House and Senate leaders will meet together, primarily behind closed doors, to develop a budget in the coming days. Based on past sessions, that budget developed by the leadership will be finalized Saturday night.
The rank-and-file members will have until Monday night to approve that plan. They cannot amend it. They can only approve it or vote to send it back for additional negotiations between House and Senate leaders.
If they send it back for more than one day of negotiations, because of constitutional deadlines, it throws the session in chaos and extraordinary parliamentary maneuvers must be taken, requiring a two-thirds vote to pass a budget.
In other words, late in the process, the rank-and-file members have limited ability to impact the budgeting process.
And the truth is that early in the session, when the framers of the state Constitution intended rank-and-file members to have the ability to have an impact, those same ran-and-file members said, thanks, but no thanks, we do not want to have an impact.