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Analysis: Budget writers prepare to say ‘no’ to requests

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Directors of Mississippi government agencies should get accustomed to one word as the 2017 legislative session approaches.

“No.”

Based on early budget proposals released by Gov. Phil Bryant and legislative leaders, that word will be the answer to plenty of requests.

Mississippi’s economy continues to grow slowly, and tax cuts are projected to reduce the money that state government collects to pay for schools, mental health care, Medicaid, county health clinics, restaurant inspections, the state Crime Lab, casino regulators, county livestock shows and other services.

The 2018 budget year begins July 1, and legislators face a late March deadline to adopt a spending plan.

Republican Bryant released his executive budget recommendation Nov. 15, and it is posted to the governor’s website (http://bit.ly/2gsLctk ).

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee released its own recommendations Thursday. Those can be found on the site of Legislative Budget Office (http://bit.ly/2gsJrMw ).

Both documents are just proposals, and details are likely to change. But, they provide insight about leaders’ priorities before the three-month legislative session begins Jan. 3.

The Legislative Budget Committee — made up of 11 Republicans and three Democrats — recommends spending almost $6.2 billion during fiscal 2018, which begins July 1. That is a reduction of $195.3 million, or 3 percent, from the current year. Bryant uses similar numbers.

Some proposals appear in both budget blueprints, including one that might cause heartburn for state employees worried about job security. Bryant recommends lifting state Personnel Board oversight for all agencies, which would remove civil-service protection and make it easier for agencies to hire or fire workers. Legislators make a similar proposal, though it’s unclear how many agencies would be affected.

Bryant and top lawmakers say they want the state to rebuild its savings account. For more than two decades, Mississippi has had a rule that the state should spend no more than 98 percent of the money it expects to collect in a given year, with 2 percent being set aside into a rainy day fund. Legislators who make the rules can also break them, and the 2 percent set-aside rule has been roundly ignored when money is tight. However, financial markets like states to have money in savings to provide a cushion if tax revenues drop.

Several agencies cut services heading into fiscal 2017, and they could face even tighter budgets in the coming year. Among them is the Department of Mental Health.

In May, Mental Health director Diana Mikula announced the department was making several cuts, including closing 67 drug and alcohol rehabilitation beds and 29 beds at the State Hospital at Whitfield for patients with both a major mental disorder and a complex medical condition. In October, Mikula told lawmakers the department has 1,453 fewer employees than it did in 2008, partly because of budget cuts. Legislators are recommending a nearly 3.3 percent cut for Mental Health in the coming year.

Other programs face tougher prospects.

Legislators propose a 37 percent cut for the State Public Defender’s Office, which is already a small part of the state budget. The office is budgeted nearly $3.2 million this year, and legislators propose cutting that to just under $2 million. The governor proposes cutting the office by $58,078, or 1.8 percent.

Both budgets recommend cuts for universities, the Department of Health, the Department of Corrections and the Mississippi Development Authority.

State agency directors rarely receive all the money they request, and this won’t be the first session for them to hear “no.” But, budget writers might be saying it earlier and more emphatically than they do most years.

» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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