The effort is designed to help elected officials obtain a deeper understanding about how revenue is collected and to examine whether it’s being used wisely.
Still, in a state where public budget hearings have become increasingly superficial the past several years, it’s hard to shake the sense that lawmakers are reinventing the wheel.
First, to the idea of “working groups.” The 174-member Mississippi Legislature has had these since, well, forever. They are called committees.
The House Ways and Means Committee handles matters dealing with taxes, fees and bonds. The equivalent group in the Senate is the Finance Committee.
Each chamber has its own Appropriations Committee that deals with spending. There’s also a 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee that is chaired by the House speaker one year and the lieutenant governor the next.
The joint committee used to hold public hearings throughout September to start evaluating agencies’ spending requests for the fiscal year that begins the following July 1. In the past few years, though, the meeting schedule has been pared from weeks to days to mere hours. This year, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee plans only a single day of hearings, on Friday, Oct. 7.
There never has been a golden age of budget writing in Mississippi. Things were not perfect under the Democrats who held the majority in the state House and Senate for generations, and they have not been perfect under the Republicans who’ve held the majority the past few years.
Budget writing is more art than science. Spending plans are based, in large measure, on experts’ educated guess about how much money the state might collect in any given year. Hurricanes and recessions can knock those guesses off kilter. Politicians who ignore solid advice and adopt a too-rosy revenue outlook can write a budget destined for mid-year cuts.
Creating the “working groups” is bringing one significant change by giving newer lawmakers, including freshman House members from heavily Republican DeSoto County, a more active role in the budget process. The House Appropriations Committee has 33 members; 24 of those seats are based on seniority in each of the four congressional districts, and that has helped keep Democrats at the table, particularly from the majority-black 2nd District in the Delta.
One of the new working groups met at the Capitol last week to hear a presentation by Nicole Kaeding, an economist with a Washington think tank called the Tax Foundation. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, praised Kaeding after she affirmed their belief that trimming corporate taxes could help boost the state economy.
Gunn also defended creation of the working groups.
“We didn’t start this for political reasons,” he said. “This was an idea to take an honest look at the tax structure: What are we doing well, and what are we doing not so well?”
Decisions about taxes and spending are inherently political, and it’s OK to acknowledge that. Committees were debating those political questions long before this wheel was reinvented.
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