Budget committee adds $99M to current-year budget; $130M to next year

JACKSON — Citing better-than-expected tax collections in recent months, Mississippi lawmakers are increasing the pool of money available for the state to spend during the current and coming budget years.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee voted yesterday to add about $99 million to the budget for the current year, which ends June 30, and about $130 million to the budget for the coming year, which begins July 1.

Those are relatively small additions in state budgets that top $4.6 billion.

With the changes, the current year’s budget will be 3.5 percent bigger than last year’s, and the next fiscal year’s budget will be 1.3 percent bigger than this year’s.

State economist Darrin Webb said Mississippi’s economic outlook is slightly stronger now than it was a few months ago, although he described the housing sector as “sluggish” and said the state in 2011 marked its fourth straight year of decreased employment levels.

“We have avoided recession and continue to grow at a slow pace,” Webb told the Budget Committee.

Tax collections for the first eight months of the current fiscal year were 4.8 percent higher than originally expected.

Lawmakers are entering the final weeks of a budget-writing process that started months ago as they determine how much money each state program will receive for the coming year. March 28 is the deadline for the House and Senate to pass the first versions of budget bills, then the two chambers trade proposals. April 30 is the deadline to adopt the final version of the budget.

Until now, cuts have been recommended for most agencies. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said that even with an increased revenue estimate, many agencies can still expect cuts, but some of those reductions might be smaller than originally recommended.

“As we look to pass budget bills in both the House and the Senate over the next 10 days or so, I think those budgets will reflect that we’ve still got some challenging times ahead,” Reeves said yesterday.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said he expects the state to fall millions short in funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. MAEP is a complex formula that seeks to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards, providing extra money for districts with higher percentages of poor students.

MAEP was put into law in 1997, but has been fully funded only twice — in the election-year legislative sessions of 2003 and 2007.

“We just don’t have the money to fully fund MAEP,” Moore said Tuesday. “And if we don’t have it, you can’t fund it — not without having to cannibalize other agencies.”

About three dozen Democratic legislators held a news conference yesterday to say they think education, health care and local libraries would be shortchanged under Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s proposed budget.

Bryant released his spending proposals in late January, recommending 5.5 percent cuts for most agencies and more than a 3 percent cut for elementary and secondary schools. Bryant recommended that local school districts dip into their own reserves to make up for a possible $73 million reduction in state funding for K-12.

“It hasn’t been that long ago that we were all out on the campaign trail. And I don’t remember Gov. Bryant and the Republicans saying, ‘Please vote for me so I can come down here to Jackson and cut education even deeper.’ But this is the budget that Gov. Bryant has proposed on behalf of the Republicans,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “And those of us who are Democrats feel that this is where we are drawing the line — that we are essentially not going to accept a budget that’s got one penny less for community colleges, universities and public schools than last year’s budget. ”

Bryant said in a statement Tuesday that his budget recommended “tough but necessary cuts,” based on the revenue figures available in January. He said if tax collections continue at a healthy pace, he’ll support putting more money into public safety, education and job creation.

Bryant also discussed the budget in a video message to supporters this week.

“When I put out my executive budget recommendation, I said, ‘If anybody’s got a better idea, let me know.’ So far, we’ve heard no better ideas,” Bryant said in the video. “Now, I think you’re going to see an increase in growth in revenue and we’re going to be able to use that to level fund MAEP by using additional state revenues, and we’re going to be able to help manage Medicaid. We’ve got to get it under control.”

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