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Education, health, prisons face cuts in FY17 budget draft

Mississippi’s top budget writers are recommending spending cuts to schools, universities, community colleges, prisons, Medicaid, and mental health and human services for the coming year.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee met Tuesday and approved an initial blueprint for fiscal 2017, which begins July 1.

The blueprint recommends how to spend nearly $6.2 billion in state money. That’s a 1.6 percent decrease from the current year because of slow economic growth.

The plan approved by the 14-member committee is only a starting point. Detailed budget discussions will take place starting in January, once members of the House and Senate begin a new four-year term.

“While we certainly would have loved to see more revenue growth, this committee has done the fiscally responsible thing,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the Budget Committee chairman.

One of the few increases in the blueprint is $2.7 million for a previous commitment to give a pay raise to state troopers. The plan also recommends $900,000 to cover salaries for new judges and their staff members, for recently created judicial positions.

Budget writers on Tuesday said their FY17 proposal would not pay for ongoing expenses by using sources of money that are available only one year at a time, from things such as lawsuit settlements.

“Mississippi is in good financial shape,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. He noted that though some other states are making mid-year budget cuts, Mississippi has about $400 million in financial reserves.

However, while lawmakers say the state is spending a record amount on education, the FY16 budget fell about $201 million short of fulfilling obligations of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula has been fully funded only two years since it was put into law in 1997, and under the recommendations approved Tuesday, the state would put the same amount of money into the formula in FY17 as it is this year. Other portions of the budget for elementary and secondary schools would be cut $170 million, or 3.1 percent, under the plan.

Reeves said that in past few years, the state has given universities and community colleges money to repair buildings on campus. He said that money would stop in FY17, which is a big reason for the recommended cuts in higher education.

The proposal would eliminate 2,574 vacant positions in state government, reduce spending on travel and contract services, and delay the purchase of some equipment.

The FY17 proposal does not count on spending any of the lawsuit settlement money that Mississippi is supposed to receive because of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Reeves said discussions about that money could take place in a few months, and he wants to spend most of it on Gulf Coast projects, as Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has recommended.

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