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BILL CRAWFORD — Quickie budget hearings produce few surprises

BILL CRAWFORD

The Legislature’s quickie budget hearings produced few surprises last week. Schools, colleges, and universities, as usual, asked for lots more money while legislators, as usual, focused on holding down spending.

 
One unusual aspect, compared to recent history, was the absence of a looming budget cut due to revenue shortfalls. State tax collections for the first two months of this fiscal year are 10% higher than last year and 4% ahead of the revenue estimate. Last year, the state collected millions less than expected and suffered three mid-year budget cuts by Governor Phil Bryant.
 
Tempering this good news was the continuing outlook for slow revenue growth due to what state economist Darrin Webb called the state’s “lackluster” economic performance. Fitch and S&P ratings also project “relatively slow” economic growth.
 
Two surprises were the Department of Mental Health asking for level funding and Medicaid asking for less than it sought last year. The mental health agency was severely impacted by budget cuts over the past two years. Consequently, the agency announced it would lay off 650 employees and cut many services. Apparently, agency leaders decided the cuts to be a fait accompli and chose not to die in the ditch seeking unlikely budget increases. Medicaid’s request was down $47 million. The agency said it could request less because of an increase in federal matching funds.
 
Education entities, on the other hand, told the budget committee they need $437 million more to adequately educate and train students. “I don’t want to see Mississippi left behind as the rest of the world moves forward,” said Dr. Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University, as reported by the Associated Press.
 
“We are not going to have that kind of money,” House Pro Tem Greg Snowden said, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “We have to prioritize and choose somehow.”
 
One extra thing they will choose to fund for sure is the next phase of the $415 million tax cut adopted in 2016. The additional cost for the upcoming fiscal year is estimated to be $46 million.
 
“We work for the taxpayers, not the bureaucracy that has been created over the past 200 years,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, according to Mississippi Today. 
 
Lack of respect for the “bureaucracy” likely played a role in Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn scaling back the time allotted to agency heads to plead their budget cases. As pointed out by The Clarion-Ledger, agencies used to be allotted significant time to present and justify their budgets. Past hearings would take a solid week, sometimes more, compared to the day and a half allotted this year. “Most agencies will only submit their spending requests to the Legislative Budget Office and not make a formal presentation,” the newspaper reported. 
 
“How can you actually get up and talk about your agency and the needs of your agency in a 20-minute presentation?” Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, told Mississippi Today.  
 
No one is listening, Brenda, so the gap between what agency heads see as citizen demands for services and what legislators perceive as demands from taxpayers just grows and grows.
 
 
» BILL CRAWFORD is syndicated columnist from Meridian (crawfolk@gmail.com)

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