Agency directors report on impact from budget cuts

by Associated Press

Published: November 11,2010

Tags: revenues, state budget, state government, tax collections

JACKSON — Mississippi agriculture officials could stop inspecting meat processing plants. Some state parks could close. Public broadcasting could stop producing some local programming.

Those are just a few scenarios provided by directors of Mississippi government agencies if they face deep budget cuts in the year that begins next July 1.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour last month asked the directors to submit letters by Nov. 1, showing how their programs would handle a 15 percent budget reduction for the coming year.

The Associated Press obtained the directors’ letters from the governor’s office this week. Top members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee said yesterday that they hadn’t received copies of the letters, although they had requested them.

Leading lawmakers say money will be tight, but 15 percent budget cuts are highly unlikely.

“I think what the governor asked for was the worst-case scenario,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando.

The 14-member Budget Committee set an estimate Tuesday of 1.3 percent revenue growth in the coming year, and that’s the number they’ll use as they start trying to divvy up public money. The legislative session starts in January, and all 122 House members and 52 senators are scheduled to vote on budget bills by April.

The 1.3 percent increase is a small rate of growth, but it shows a slight improvement in a state where revenues had been declining because of the sluggish economy the past two years.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said Barbour is trying to scare people just as lawmakers are embarking on the first serious steps of writing next year’s budget.

“Historically, the governor has always put fear first,” Flaggs said yesterday.

Barbour is out of state on vacation, but he participated in a Tuesday conference call with the Budget Committee. He said he wants money minders to be cautious. Barbour is limited to two terms and can’t seek re-election in 2011.

Several agency directors said that with 15 percent cuts, they’d have to lay off some employees and furlough others. Several agency directors asked that their employees’ civil-service protections be removed for a year or two — a move that would make layoffs happen more quickly. Because 2011 is an election year, many lawmakers might be reluctant to anger state employees by approving that change.

Department of Rehabilitation Services executive director Butch McMillan said a 15 percent cut to his agency would mean a loss of $2.8 million in state funds, causing a loss of $9.8 million in federal funds. He said some patients could be sent to nursing homes for rehabilitative services, which would be significantly more expensive than keeping them at home.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said “there are no nonessential operations which could be eliminated” at his agency. He suggested that the state could save money by consolidating other agencies into the Department of Public Safety, including the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. He said the Gaming Commission’s enforcement division could be merged into DPS.

Joel K. Bennett, director of finance and personnel for the Public Service Commission, said a 15 percent cut would equal a loss of $904,635. Bennett wrote that the PSC — which regulates utilities — has five vacant positions, and if those remain unfilled, the agency would save $190,316, leaving a balance of $714,319 still to cut.

Bennett wrote that the money “would have to be taken from other budget categories to include employee furloughs, all negatively impacting the delivery of services to the consumers of the State of Mississippi.”

Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell said the Department of Agriculture and Commerce could save money by consolidating with the Mississippi Fair Commission, the Board of Animal Health and other agencies with similar interests. He said the state could stop doing inspections of meat plants.

Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks executive director Sam Polles said that deep budget cuts could force the agency to close some lesser-used state parks, lakes or wildlife management areas. He said operating hours could be limited at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson.

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